One of Filmbrain's earliest forays into the world of "real" literature began when he pulled Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle off his father's shelf at a young, highly impressionable age -- it was the start of a relationship that has continued all the way up to the present. Though several of Vonnegut's novels have been turned into films, most of them are curiosities at best (Mother Night, Breakfast of Champions) and outright failures at their worst (Slapstick -- an incredible novel that is an utter mess of a film). The one exception is Slaughterhouse Five, a good (great?) film that Filmbrain plans to revisit in the near future.
Two Vonnegut-based films that have for many years resided on Filmbrain's want-to-see-somehow-someday list are the 1972 TV film Between Time and Timbuktu and 1971's Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Filmbrain recently tracked down the latter, and it was even better than he had expected.
Directed by Mark Robson (who has given us such diverse films as Peyton Place, Von Ryan's Express, Valley of the Dolls, and Earthquake), and starring Rod Steiger, Susannah York and William Hickey, the film has the production values (and similar looking sets) of an episode of The Odd Couple. Based on Vonnegut's first stage play, it tells the story of Harold Ryan (Steiger), adventurer, hunter, and war-hero (presumed dead), and his unexpected return home to his wife Penelope (York), and son Paul (Steven Paul). Harold had been trapped in an African jungle for eight years with his friend Looseleaf Harper (Hickey), the man who dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. The two return to an America that they no longer recognize -- the peace movement and women's liberation are just two examples of changes they are unprepared for. Penelope has moved on with her life, and when we first meet her she is about to choose between two of her beaus -- Herb Shuttle (Don Murray), a brash vacuum cleaner salesman, and Dr. Norbert Woodley (George Grizzard), a peacenik violin-playing doctor who lives next door. The return of her husband naturally complicates matters, and much of the film addresses the changes in social and sexual politics occurring at that time.
Harold is the classic modernist hero -- a gun toting macho who believes that a woman's place is in the kitchen, bedroom, and nowhere else. He's a stark contrast to the new men in Penelope's life: though Herb fancies himself a man's man, his total admiration of Harold results is his becoming a sycophantic lackey who takes on the role of surrogate wife. Norbert is perceived by both Harold and Herb as a homosexual -- given his belief in non-violence and his choice of musical instrument. All three of these men try to be a father to Paul, who is understandably quite confused by the whole affair. A parallel thread running throughout the film is the story of Wanda June (70's film and TV staple Pamelyn Ferdin), a little girl killed by a drunk driver on the day Harold returns home. Wanda is up in heaven, which is depicted as an amusement park where everybody is happy and plays shuffleboard all day. Vonnegut's heaven is indiscriminatory -- innocent little girls and Nazis play side by side.
The theatrical roots are clearly evident -- most of the action takes place either in the Ryan's apartment or up in heaven. And though the look of the film is rather TV-esque, the performances more than make up for any aesthetic shortcomings. Steiger's ability to overact is put to great use here, and at times his performance seems to be channeling the two Richards -- Burton and Harris. Constantly moving to and fro, his non-stop barking of orders and platitudes ultimately reveals him to be (as Penelope points out) a clown. His ideas of manhood are sadly outdated and his threats of violence are empty -- but he's a tremendous asshole nonetheless. (At one point he chides Herb, "Don't say pass the ketchup, say pass the fucking ketchup!") This is Steiger at his best, by far, and he should have received greater recognition for the role.
The 70's were good to Susannah York, and she is marvelous here as the woman loved by three very different (though equally pathetic) men. (Dig the haircut, above.) Made just a year before her star turn in Robert Altman's Images, she skillfully handles the comedic and dramatic elements that the role calls for, and her scenes with Steiger rival the best pairings of that era. The same can be said for the rest of the cast as well, particularly William Hickey who plays the mournful, reluctant bomber.
Though some of the issues the film addresses are a bit dated, Happy Birthday, Wanda June is probably the best adaptation of a Vonnegut piece, and the dialog is razor sharp throughout. Genuinely funny, this is a film that deserves to be resurrected from wherever it's been buried -- the performances by Steiger, Hickey and York simply must be seen to be believed.
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