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Although never considered a high-ranking comedy, Charles K. Feldman's sex farce What's New Pussycat was big news back in 1965, when it must have given the Production Code folk conniption fits. Loads of pictorial coverage appeared in Playboy, as the pitch of its humor fit right in with the magazine's male-oriented perspective. Given an 'adults only' advisory, the show became a major source of interest for little Savant, then in junior high. I remember listening to salacious exaggerations of its content in the schoolyard, and I took great risks sneaking peeks at my older cousin's Playboy. Of course, the Tom Jones title tune was all over the radio, too.
The Paris-based production is a stylish mess, with director Clive Donner frequently overruled by his star Peter Sellers. Continuity problems arise from all directions. A tacked-on 'merry chase' finish was okay then but seems particularly flat now. Lumpy as it may be, the show has a dream cast and plenty of funny material, not to mention great color (in old Technicolor prints).
The show also has some real firsts. It's Woody Allen's first big-screen appearance. Allen also wrote the screenplay, much of which is still funny despite his disappointment over changes out of his control. And it's also composer-songwriter Burt Bacharach's first go at a full film score, the success of which led immediately to more fun assignments for After the Fox and Casino Royale, producer Feldman's Bond spoof with dozens of connections to Pussycat.
Sex-wise, What's New Pussycat leaps beyond the naughty-but-holy Doris Day - Rock Hudson comedies. It builds on the slick, Europe-oriented The Pink Panther and A Shot in the Dark, made immediately before. Woody Allen often based his later scripts on classy Euro Art films, and in Pussycat has fashioned his own idealized Dirty Foreign Movie, circa '65. When Peter O'Toole joins Romy Schneider in the shower, she purrs, "Oh, is it foreign movie time again?"
Sex-crazed Parisian psychoanalyst Dr. Fritz Fassbender (Peter Sellers) is gaga over his frigid patient Renée (Capucine), who like all women is deeply attracted to another patient, Michael James (Peter O'Toole). The editor of a fashion magazine, Michael is dazzled by the constant parade of beauties that seem willing and available. He tries to be true to his gorgeous German fiancée Carole Werner (Romy Schneider, radiant) but cannot resist the temptations afforded by stripper/nonconformist Liz (Paula Prentiss) and blonde sex bomb Rita (Ursula Andress). Fritz is traumatically envious of Michael's sex appeal. The frustrated Carole dates Michael's nebbish friend Victor (Woody Allen), a confused artist whose day job is helping the strippers dress backstage. Carole's parents come to visit, Liz repeatedly attempts suicide and Rita literally parachutes into Michael's MG sports roadster. It all winds up in crazy door-slamming chaos at the naughty no-tell sex hideaway Chateau Chantel.
Allen packs his show with verbal jokes and sight gags both corny and clever, some of which director Clive Donner doesn't carry off particularly well. Always with a dreamy look on his face, Peter O'Toole enters signing his name with a toothbrush, indicating how he spends his nights. He has a tendency to call every prospective bedmate "pussycat", a gag guaranteed to offend those that won't take the film's vintage into consideration. Peter Sellers gives himself a thick Goon Squad German accent, long hair and big glasses, doing okay with the Fassbinder character but not straining his talent. Woody Allen emerges as his basic insecure nebbish, fully formed. Hee gives himself plenty of good physical schtick, like leaving the room to scream after hitting his thumb with a hammer.
The glamorous actresses really bring the sex comedy to life, inspiring pleasant dreams in immature males everywhere. Capucine is okay as the nervous, frigid Renée . Fassbinder has given her a whistle to blow whenever she feels sexually threatened. Naturally she has no need of it with O'Toole's Michael. She's stuck with the least interesting female part. At the time considered one of the most beautiful women alive, Ursula Andress enters only in the last act, as sort of an extra-special effect or sex symbol ex machina. She's even referred to as, "James Bond's girl." Doing excellent work as a teasing, confused poetess-kook is Paula Prentiss, here going for a more adult appeal to escape her Jim Hutton-MGM connection. Her comedy timing is flawless. Images from Playboy show that Prentiss was aiming for sex-appeal fame as well.
Coming out on top is the sexy, sensual Romy Schneider, the former star of German "Sissi" films who by '64 was starring in pictures directed by René Clément, Luchino Visconti, Otto Preminger, Orson Welles and H. G. Clouzot. Schneider anchors the film as the only character looking for something more than a quick lay. She's hilarious, whether trying unsuccessfully to bring Michael to heel, or crossing her eyes in fits of pique. She's also good getting stone drunk with Woody Allen's Victor. Look closely when she falls off the bed, as it appears that she clonks her head really hard on the nightstand.
The film has great Parisian locations, which inspire visuals like Michael joining Victor at a street cafe whose clientele includes a quartet of famous painters. Fritz Fassbinder's zaftig wife (Eddra Gale of Magical Mystery Tour) chases Fritz while dressed as an opera diva: "Foiled by a cheap cinematic trick!"
Allen's most clever cinematic trick occurs when Michael suddenly bursts out with an "inspirational" speech about how fidelity to Carole is the most important value in the world. An elaborate graphic reading "Author's Message" flashes on and off over his head. Michael means well but is lying through his teeth. I think it's brilliant -- this specific gag comes to mind whenever I see a movie pause for a character to baldly state a message that should have been communicated in a more subtle manner.
The designers come up with an arresting introduction to Liz's striptease, introducing her in silhouette to Bacharach's sharp intro to the Manfred Mann song "My Little Red Book". As the scene has been removed with a massive, jarring censorship cut, what's left has poor continuity. Design-wise, it's similar to Joanna Pettet's beautifully choreographed "Mata Hari" dance sequence in Casino Royale. One really does wonder what the uncut strip sequence looked like. 1
Fringe benefits include Jess Franco's recurring spook Howard Vernon as a doctor, a cameo by Richard Burton and Woody Allen's talented girlfriend/collaborator Louise Lasser (whose distinctive voice can be heard often in Allen's What's Up, Tiger Lily?). Jess Hahn, Daniel Emilfork and Michael Subor have good bits. Among the dozen or so skimpily-dressed, knockout starlets are Tanya Lopert, Jacqueline Fogt , Sabine Sun and Françoise Hardy of Grand Prix.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of What's New Pussycat is the best presentation to date of this bouncy, confused but fitfully brilliant sex farce from the frustrated years just before the ratings system allowed nudity and sexual humor. The colors are warm and soft.
The music sounds great -- Burt Bacharach's in this film made him as popular as Henry Mancini. Besides the Top 40 hits by Tom Jones and Manfred Mann, the show debuts "Here I Am", a romantic tune sung by Bacharach's favorite Dionne Warwick. Listen closely to the melody, as it is exactly the same as the song "Share the Joy" from Bacharach's later musical Lost Horizon.
Note that the film's on-screen main title has no question mark, although all the advertising does. The original ad campaign featured a Frank Frazetta 'merry chase' artwork, pictured above. A trailer is included but it is missing an announcer's audio track. I wish that some European archive would come up with a full cut of this film's lost 'continental version', just to find out what it consists of. The ragged jump cut marking the missing Paula Prentiss striptease will always be a point of curiosity.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
What's New Pussycat Blu-ray rates:
1. It's unfortunately likely that the original materials for Pussycat's presumed sexy uncut foreign version were destroyed in 1990-1991. At that time Cannon/Pathé people were briefly in control of MGM/UA. They disposed of an entire vault of music masters, textless elements, cut scenes and alternate versions.
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T'was Ever Thus.