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Monday 17 July 2017

Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? (1968)

Director: Don Weis
Writer: John Fenton Murray, from a story by James Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum
Stars: Phyllis Diller, Bob Denver, Joe Flynn, Eileen Wesson, Jeanette Nolan, Paul Reed, Bob Hastings and David Hartman

Index: 2017 Centennials.

One hundred years ago today, Phyllis Ada Driver was born in Lima, OH. Under her married name of Phyllis Diller, this unique and groundbreaking talent would change the business of stand-up comedy which, before her, was a male only domain. Virtually every American female comedian since has cited her as an influence, including Joan Rivers who wrote for her before she found her own fame. Surprisingly, for someone with such a long career, it began late: she was already in her late thirties, married with five kids but a two week booking at the Purple Onion in San Francisco was extended to a year and a half and, just like that, she had a career. Of course, she eventually found her way to television and onto film but, like so many other comedians, she is still confined by her nationality. Humour is a fickle creature; it doesn’t travel the way that action, horror or romance do. As an Englishman, I never saw Diller on TV or in films and would have had difficulty understanding what made her so popular because of the cultural disconnect.

Even today, I believe I’ve only seen her once, in a highly unusual performance as a contestant on Groucho Marx’s game show, You Bet Your Life, in 1958. It was her television debut and she hadn’t yet adopted the outrageous persona that would make her famous. I found her funny, if a little nervous, and it was obvious that Groucho was impressed. So this was a real discovery for me and I’m not sure that I’ve fully recovered yet; what works on the stage of a comedy club doesn’t always translate into a narrative story and it’s not unfair to state that Diller’s schtick is hard to take as the lead character in a feature film. And I chose this one precisely because she was the lead, for the first time in a straight comedy feature, and I wanted to see how that worked. It was her seventh picture, following a tiny role in Splendor in the Grass; the lead in a musical, The Fat Spy; a voice acting slot in Mad Monster Party?; and a trio of supporting roles in Bob Hope movies: Boy, Did I Get a Wrong Number!, Eight on the Lam and The Private Navy of Sgt. O’Farrell.

Well, it didn’t work. As a comedy, its a relatively painful experience. As cinematic art, it’s hard to tell if it has any merits, though its continuing lack of a home video release means that I was forced to watch this obviously widescreen film in pan and scan format, as recorded off some American television channel, with periodic breaks for commercials. As a vehicle for Phyllis Diller, film star, it’s a wreck on the highway, a reminder that those who bought tickets should probably go see her live on stage instead. Those watching wouldn’t see her as untalented, just a fish out of water ironically playing a fish out of water. She’s Agatha Knabenshu, the surname having four syllables rather than a silent K, and she’s the ‘traveling saleswoman’ of the title, to use the American spelling. It’s 1910 and she’s visiting the quiet and rustic town of Primrose Junction, Missouri, to drum up custom for a rather expensive product: the ‘genuine super-deluxe Duckworth player piano’ at $397. I should add that a good income in the 1910s was around $1,500 a year.

Well, I say ‘quiet and rustic’ because that’s what it surely would be if not for the presence of Bertram Webb, who’s an inept, if well-meaning inventor with an unfortunate tendency to destroy everything that he touches. He’s played by another American comedy legend, Bob Denver, right after he finished up almost a hundred episodes of Gilligan’s Island. He was famous before that show, for a four year run on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis and he’d go on to The Good Guys, Dusty’s Trail and a whole slew of Gilligan’s Island spin-offs: TV movies, fresh TV series, even a bizarre mashup called The Harlem Globetrotters on Gilligan’s Island and a guest appearance on ALF. Now, to the best of my knowledge, precisely none of these played British television, except ALF, so I had little knowledge who Bob Denver was either. Maybe I saw the one episode of I Dream of Jeannie in which he appeared and just failed to notice. The same applies to Joe Flynn from McHale’s Navy, David Hartman from The Virginian and maybe Paul Reed from Car 54: Where are You? too.
What highlights this best is the fact that Did You Hear the One About the Traveling Saleslady? did play the UK and many people saw it, because it screened as the second feature to Carry On Camping, the most popular film at the UK box office in 1969, one of the most memorable in the Carry On series, even at episode number seventeen. That double bill actually makes a sort of sense; the ideas are relatively similar: a raucous combination of family friendly sex jokes, slapstick shenanigans and self-deprecating humour. I found myself mapping Carry On regulars over to this film to see what worked and what didn’t. While Phyllis Diller is channelling Auntie Mame and Mae West, it’s easy to see her as a combination of Sid James and Joan Sims, the lecherous lead and the plain jane who’s the butt of everyone’s jokes. Denver is playing the Jim Dale part and his ‘girlfriend’, Jeanine Morse, is clearly the Angela Douglas role for Eileen Wesson. But there’s no equivalent to Babs Windsor, Kenneth Williams or Bernard Bresslaw and they’re missed.

Of course, everyone’s playing their parts with a notably American flavour, which is to be expected. This is small town America and the prominent roles are inventors, salesmen and bankers, all self-made positions that highlight the sheer possibilities inherent in the American dream. Most of the humour is American too, which makes me wonder how much the Carry On audience understood from such a different cultural background. However, some of it is universal and could well have been copied over without a hitch. When Diller says, ‘Let’s not bring sex into this,’ then adds in an aside, ‘What am I saying?’, the addition of a dirty laugh would have made it a Sid James line. The running joke of horses rearing up in dismay whenever she shows her legs is quintessential Joan Sims or Hattie Jacques. After she destroys much of the bank, after torpedoing into it at speed on top of her player piano, Agatha shouts, ‘Just call me the girl who broke the bank at Primrose Junction!’ That’s a Monte Carlo joke, so as European as it gets.
Being an Englishman in America, I’m fascinated by the similarities and differences in comedic approach, even in a film as awful as this one, and, while there are jokes that made me laugh, most of them needed someone else laughing to make them funny. This is a feature film but perhaps it would have worked better as a TV sitcom, with a canned laugh track. Diller overplays Agatha so much that she makes Nicolas Cage seem realistic; she ought to have entered each scene to studio laughter. That goes double for scenes in which she showcases a new outfit! These are beyond outrageous; they’re like a showgirl and a clown fought over Victorian bathing suit patterns and conjured up clothes out of tablecloths, patchwork quilts and 1970s curtains, layering them in combinations which somehow make each of those things worse. And Diller struts around in these creations like she’s Jimmy Durante dressed in drag as the dame in a British pantomime. I kept waiting for lines like ‘I got a million of ’em’ or ‘Ha-cha-cha-cha!’

It’s not just the outfits that needed a laugh track, it’s the whole progression of the story, if we can call it that. Naturally, Agatha and Bertram end up working together, as, in theory, he can make things and she can sell them. Naturally, they’re a side of two, as even Bertram’s father, inevitably just called Pa Webb, hates his inventing with a passion, partly because it racks up so many repair bills; the first thing we see is Bertram flung up through the barn roof because his latest invention malfunctioned. Naturally, he loves to create things that have obvious ways to go horribly wrong. We see the results of the wind-powered milking machine that he tests while a storm rushes in, but thankfully not the hi-octane hog mash or the automatic fertiliser spreader. The best gag in the movie (pun well and truly intended) is, ‘I’ll never forget when that hit the fan!’ And naturally, this odd couple accelerate the destruction all the way to the finalĂ©, with a road race for the unlikely sum of $1,500, just enough to pay all the damages they’ve caused.
The biggest problem is that the film really doesn’t know what it wants to be. Diller plays it like a sex comedy, albeit a PG one, from her very first moment on screen. ‘They’re so cute and so male and I get the pick of the litter,’ she comments, about the traveling salesmen she arrives with, who rapidly run away from her as fast as the townsfolk run away from them (even though one was her real life husband, Warde Donovan). Denver seems to want it a gentle aw-shucks comedy, just like David Hartman does, as he plays the town constable with a Jimmy Stewart impersonation. Denver vaguely accepts that it’s going to veer into wild slapstick, usually when he fires up the old woodburner, a flamboyant vehicle that doesn’t seem to understand the concept of stopping. Yet, the most slapstick the film gets is the finalĂ©, at which point he’s been sidelined so ruthlessly by Diller that we really don’t care that he’s still in the movie. Many of us may wish that she wasn’t, but then it is her film; we have to give her the rope to hang herself with.

And so, of course, it gets to be all these things, which don’t work together in the slightest. There are funny moments, like when Pa Webb finally figures out what Agatha is good at and puts her to work as a scarecrow, but they’re few and far between, because the overarching impression is that Diller acts like she’s grabbed the screen by the testicles and refuses to let go. Of course, I can easily understand why: that’s the only way to go when you’re up on stage at a comedy club. While most of her notable quotes are aimed at herself (‘I never made Who’s Who, but I’m featured in What’s What!’ or ‘I love to go to the doctor. Where else would a man look at me and say, ‘Take off your clothes’?), she knew her industry and occasionally commented on it with insight. She said, for instance, ‘A stand-up comic is judged by every line’ and that’s true. She knew that she had to keep the momentum going and she knew how: ‘My timing is so precise, a heckler would have to make an appointment just to get a word in.’ I can understand that from this!
The problem, of course, is that this isn’t a stand-up routine. When Diller got up on stage in her fright wigs, outrageous dresses and a long cigarette holder (which contained a wooden cigarette, because she never smoked) to poke fun at herself and her even more idiotic husband, Fang, I can see this working. She hurls out the one liners like there’s no tomorrow and builds them. It isn’t hard to imagine the effect on an audience of this force of nature persona. But this is a movie, a narrative feature, with a story and a host of other actors, and it needs something different to a stand-up routine. Abbott and Costello knew how to insert routines into movies; so did the Marx Brothers. Diller apparently didn’t. To be fair, she didn’t write this script; John Fenton Murray did, from a story by Jim Fritzell and Everett Greenbaum, who were already WGA award winners for The Andy Griffith Show and would soon be again for M*A*S*H. Murray was the one who wrote for comedians in shows named for Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Durante and Red Skelton.

This is surely the worst movie I’ve reviewed thus far for my centennials project, but I still found it fascinating. I’m happy it’s over but I’m also happy I watched it, to experience the frontal assault that is Phyllis Diller without a strong lead to keep her contained. Her career continued, of course, because this was never her primary medium. My better half, who was born and raised in Arizona, knew her not from movies but from television, in a succession of game shows and chat shows. IMDb tells me that she made no less than 42 appearances on The Tonight Show and I can easily see her having as much fun with host Johnny Carson as I’ve seen Rodney Dangerfield have and in precisely the same ways. Her list of credits seems endless, in part because she continued on until she was in her ninth decade, outliving half her six children. She did retire from stand-up at 84, due to ill health, but she stayed busy and it must have seemed like a hole had appeared in American culture when she finally passed away at 95.

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