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Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1963)

Director: Daniel Mann
Stars: Dean Martin, Elizabeth Montgomery and Carol Burnett

Tura Satana made two films for director Daniel Mann, which means one more than she made for Russ Meyer, with whom she's forever associated. In fact, given that her fifty year career totalled only ten films in all, that means that Mann made a full twenty percent of her films, and yet she played an uncredited stripper in both of them. That's a shame. It's also a shame that this doesn't remotely live up to its potential, especially as it had such a promising outline. Made the same year as Irma la Douce, it's a vehicle for Dean Martin, who coincidentally starred in Billy Wilder's next film, Kiss Me, Stupid, and it's a great multilayered role for him, given that he doesn't just get to play actor Jason Steel but the character that Jason Steel plays on TV too, the apparently flawless title role of Ask Dr Adam. That's not a bad deal really, but the problem is that the ladies in the story see him more as Dr Adam than they do Jason Steel and, as they say, hilarity ensues.

The similarities between Steel and Adam are highlighted early, which is promising. 'There's a lot more to being a doctor than checking thermometers and taking pulses,' a nurse tells him as he saves a marriage. 'It's all in a day's work,' Adam replies and walks off into the credits, to emerge in the car park as Steel to rail at the godlike status of his character and cycle off into the sunset: two exit scenes running so we can't help but compare them. He's grouchy because he's about to get married, though he's enough of a man to still maintain a cool bachelor pad with a spacious bar and a gentleman's gentleman of his very own. Quagmire would be proud. He's nervous but not with cold feet. He wants to elope right now and avoid the big wedding, hardly surprising given that his fiancée is an art teacher played by Elizabeth Montgomery. If only these two were the only characters in the story. Unfortunately, he has five unhappily married poker buddies.

These misogynists want nothing more than to escape their wives and play poker together every Wednesday night, while their wives try everything to stop them. Why, I have no idea, given that they're not likely to be good company. Tom Edwards doesn't want to celebrate his fifth wedding anniversary with his French wife. 'Let's not be slaves to this middle class nonsense,' he tells her. 'It's just another day on the calendar.' Apparently he can resist her cute accent. Harry Tobler has had two heart attacks already, dancing with his very supple wife. He doesn't want another one, but I'd chance it. Yoshimi Hiroti doesn't want the traditional Japanese culture his delightful wife deluges him in. I'd take it all. Sanford Kaufman wants out of a lecture on pre-Columbian art his wife wants to take him to. Actually I'd go for that too. Leonard Ashley's wife goes for reverse psychology, making him feel as guilty as she can. She'd let him kill her if it'll make him happy.
And so the neglected wives start to ring Dr Adam at the poker game, because he can do it all: fix medical ailments on the operating table and human problems away from it. They see Jason as the character he plays on TV so much that they start calling him Doctor. Thus Jason starts to experience married life by proxy, his good nature easily taken advantage of by wives desperate for attention. So Jacqueline Edwards cooks for him, Toby Tobler dances with him and Isami Tani sings to him while walking over his back, all unloading their troubles at the same time. You can imagine how easily this leads to situation comedy, with Steel trying to keep them all apart, but it also leads to breakdown as Mona Kaufman rings him to complain about her husband right after he's booked himself in to see him the next day at his practice. He's a psychiatrist as well as a poker buddy. I really enjoyed the film up to this point, but here's where it goes downhill.

That's not to say it's been without flaws thus far. It's a particularly testosterone fuelled romance, perhaps the true opposite of a chick flick, with the misogyny inherent rather than confined to the misogynistic husbands. The moral really feels like these guys have the right attitude. Sure, they each made the same mistake and got married, but that's all behind them now and they've come to terms with it. They can deal with the little ladies back home well enough, and we're supposed to hope that Jason Steel learns their lessons in time to avoid making the same mistake himself. No, that's not quite how it turns out in the end, of course, but Hollywood always had a habit of throwing in endings to satisfy certain audiences, whether they be female filmgoers who flocked to see Dean Martin movies or administrators of the production code who were all about having the sanctity of marriage underlined on screen.

Partly this attitude is dominant because the female characters are so badly written. Elizabeth Montgomery got a co-starring credit as Steel's intended, Melissa Morris, but she's hardly in the movie. Even when she's given screen time, she gets a lot less to do with it than Carol Burnett, who stamps all over her scenes as if she owned them. Then again, while Montgomery is a very recognisable face to us today, that's mostly from her long run on Bewitched, which wouldn't begin until the year after this film. While Burnett was debuting on the big screen here, she was already a household name on TV, 1963 marking her second consecutive Emmy, the first for The Garry Moore Show and the second for both Julie and Carol at Carnegie Hall and An Evening with Carol Burnett. She pulls out the stops here and gets most of the best lines of the picture, but I'd much rather have seen more of Montgomery. Burnett is annoying here, Montgomery isn't.
As for the other women, they don't get much to do either except provide potential validation why their husbands don't want to spend time with them any more. They may be delightful to look at, as you might expect from actresses like Jill St John, Macha Méril and Yoko Tani, but they're clingy and whiny and hardly grounded in reality. They may entertain us, but they drive poor Jason Steel batty. Like Montgomery, they also disappear mostly into the background as the capable, if a little predictable, comedy of the first half deteriorates into silliness and slapstick in the second half as Carol Burnett takes over and Dean Martin runs wild. This latter is a saving grace, given that he gets to demonstrate a Cary Grant impersonation at one point and even a couple of Dean Martin impressions too, that somehow appropriate for a film in which he plays a character who plays another character. Why not have his character play him too?

The most interesting thing with this script is how it moves in two opposite directions at the same time. As Jason Steel finds himself unwittingly helping out everyone else's marriage just by being nice, he feels more afraid of beginning his own. His session with Dr Kaufman is enough to define him as a confirmed bachelor. Yet as the ladies treat him more as the perfect character he plays on TV he becomes less and less perfect in real life, becoming notably unstable, to the point we wonder why our delightful art teacher still wants him. It's not like the actors weren't accustomed to ending marriages. Montgomery had divorced two husbands already and she married William Asher while making this film. While that marriage would also end in divorce, it also produced her three children. Dino went through three divorces too but at this point was fourteen years into the twenty three his second marriage would last, one that would give him three children too.

It's hard to see how this film could have been fixed. The premise is a good one and I'm hardly going to complain about the cast, but it seems to consistently take the wrong direction at every step. For a while those wrong directions are still funny, so we can run with it, writer Jack Rose no rookie writer with two Oscar nominations already behind him and a third to come. By the halfway point all the bad directions have only set up more bad directions and the humour drains out of them as situations progress. At almost an hour and three quarters, it's also too long. One of the few highlights of the second half of the film is that uncredited performance by Tura Satana, a brief spot as a stripper in a Tijuana bar, moving a heck of a lot more than she ever got a chance to do in Irma la Douce. She sure was flexible back then. If only the script had been as flexible, maybe it would have given us a lot more to enjoy from the perspective of a different era.

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