Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Sleaziest Family Movies Ever

Someone should really write a biography of Joe Pasternak, the Hungarian refugee producer who saved Universal -- with his Deanna Durbin movies and Destry Rides Again -- and then moved to MGM and made stars out of Mario Lanza, Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson. He produced hit movies for over 30 years, more than that if you count the films he produced in Germany and Hungary before he fled to America. None of his movies are great and few of his movies after his move to MGM are even good (some of his Universal productions still hold up very well), but he was probably MGM's most successful producer in terms of consistent box-office results, and he kept producing hits long after the rest of MGM was in a state of free-fall. So while Arthur Freed's musicals were way better than Pasternak's, Pasternak had fewer expensive flops and probably more big hits. And after the market for original musicals started to shrink, he re-calibrated and made a bunch of successful non-musical "family comedies" that could have been musicals if they'd had a few extra songs.

It's these '60s "family comedies" that are a strangely fascinating cultural relic, because Pasternak's success in this field involved making some of the sleaziest family movies in Hollywood history: movies like Where the Boys Are, The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Penelope and Please Don't Eat the Daisies are a very strange mixture of wholesome entertainment and sentimentality, the kind of thing Pasternak had known how to do since the '30s, with a large dose of sexism, leering and other examples of what passed for hip in the Rat Pack era. TCM showed two 1963 Pasternak productions the other day, The Courtship of Eddie's Father (directed by Vincente Minnelli, who had been Freed's guy rather than Pasternak's) and A Ticklish Affair (directed by George Sidney, who had worked for Pasternak as far back as Anchors Aweigh). Both are ultra-cutesy family comedies about adorable widows and/or widowers with adorable sons. But Courtship has a bunch of boob and butt jokes and the most sexist line in movie history, while A Ticklish Affair has, among other things, a scene where Red Buttons admires the short-shorted gyrations of Shirley Jones -- who plays his sister.

Nothing was sleazier than '60s family entertainment, for reasons I've outlined before, but somehow Joe Pasternak seemed to take it up a notch, so that his movies seem squarely aimed at the perfect early '60s family: two kids, one martini-swilling mom and one dad who leers at everything in skirts. It's like a series of movies for the people in Mad Men.

Towards the end of his career Pasternak, of course, wound up producing a couple of Elvis Presley movies, the kind of movie that's synonymous with wholesome sleaze. Neither of them were anywhere near as good as Viva Las Vegas, though (which was produced by Jack Cummings, the quietest of the big MGM musical producers but in some respects the most tasteful). Two of the writers on those films, Ted Flicker and George Kirgo -- who, like many writers in the '60s, bounced back and forth between medium-budget movies and TV -- recalled a bit about what it was like to work for Pasternak at a time when he was basically the only successful MGM producer left at the crumbling studio:

THEODORE J. FLICKER: Joe Pasternak called me and said, "The studio thinks that these two kids, Sonny and Cher, are going to be stars. What if you wrote and directed a picture for these kids, Sonny and Cher? You know, like "A Hard Day's Night"?" And I said, "I would love it!"

GEORGE KIRGO: Now this was a Friday when we talked, and over the weekend, Sonny and Cher were out and Presley was in.

THEODORE J. FLICKER: Joe called me and said, "The studio's decided that Sonny and Cher are not going to be big stars, and so they've cancelled the project. I feel terrible about this. But I've got an Elvis Presley picture going. You could write that, but you can't direct it because Norman Taurog" -- he won an Academy Award for "Skippy" (1931) -- "has already been signed to direct it." And I said, "Fine. The only thing is, this I won't write alone." I said, "I know who I want to write it with -- can I bring another writer in?" And he said sure, so I called George.

GEORGE KIRGO: He told me it was for Joe Pasternak, and I said, "I know Joe. Okay. What's it about?" And Flicker just shrugged and said, "We'll figure something out."


Anonymous said...

Yeah... my mother used to refer to her package trip to Europe as "one of those if-it's-Tuesday-this-must-be-Belgium things." I'm pretty sure she hadn't actually seen IITTMBB, which is a fairly sleazy movie, but she just assumed that anything with Suzanne Pleshette in it must be good wholesome family fare. Either that, or her perception of family movies was so warped by then that she really did think it was a cute, innocent travel flick.

Also, I can't imagine pitching Where the Boys Are--which is probably my favorite of Glendon Swarthout's books, but a pretty sucky movie--as a family film. Wow.

Anonymous said...

Hey, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN =IS= a great movie! Give him that one, at least!