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Penelope

by Glenn Erickson Jan 25, 2020

What can one say about a comedy that just limps along, even when an attractive cast does fine work every step of the way?  Even the bit parts are creatively cast in this odd romp infected with a really bad case of The Cutes. Natalie Wood is at her best, but in service of dumb gags: let’s blow bubble gum bubbles! The result so upset Natalie that she ditched her studio contract. The roster of engaging talent includes Peter Falk (in suave leading man mode!), Dick Shawn (less grating than usual), Lila Kedrova & Lou Jacobi (showing real style), Jonathan Winters (wasted) and, of all people, Ian Bannen as Natalie Wood’s uncomprehending husband. Bannen is so good, he drags a real laugh or two from the material. The show has been beautifully remastered.


Penelope
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 97 min. / Street Date January 26, 2020 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Natalie Wood, Ian Bannen, Dick Shawn, Peter Falk, Jonathan Winters, Lila Kedrova, Lou Jacobi, Norma Crane, Arthur Malet, Jerome Cowan, Arlene Golonka, Amzie Strickland, Bill Gunn, Carl Ballantine, Iggie Wolfington, Edith Evanson, Fritz Feld, George M. Neise, Hope Summers.
Cinematography: Harry Stradling Sr.
Film Editor: Rita Roland
Original Music: Johnny Williams
Written by George Wells from a novel by E.V. Cunningham (Howard Fast)
Produced by Arthur M. Lowe Jr., Joe Pasternak
Directed by
Arthur Hiller

 

Some postings on the IMDB express enthusiasm for this formerly scarce 1966 comedy, as a happy discovery. Well, it’s always good to see another movie with a favorite star like Natalie Wood opposite some great talent. But the movie has an air of desperation about it, and precious few laughs. Reviewers took to noting Wood’s $250,000 Edith Head wardrobe for the film, just to have something positive to say.

After witnessing his openly political book become the epochal success Spartacus, the controversial Howard Fast continued to write under his own name and several aliases as well. His book Penelope became an MGM comedy vehicle for star Natalie Wood, on loan from Warner Bros.. If Fast’s work had any political content, it didn’t make it through the adaptation by George Wells, who had penned some decent comedy-romance hits at MGM (Designing Woman, Where the Boys Are) even if some sank in the studio’s swamp of unfunny comedies: The Horizontal Lieutenant and especially the nearly unwatchable The Impossible Years.

Penelope begins with a bland animated title sequence, then a given for MGM’s light comedy fare. The rom-com wants to be a breezy, carefree vehicle for the marvelous Natalie Wood. Her Penelope Elcott is the kooky wife of James (Brit actor Ian Bannen), a banker who doesn’t pay her enough attention. Penelope frequents her confused psychiatrist Dr. Mannix (Dick Shawn) and, as a former beatnik, has a habit of leaving her shoes behind in stores and taxicabs. Flashbacks show her meeting James in the coffee club where she sings, and gravitating to his side at a party attended by self-obsessed art hipsters. Penelope has worked out an original response to her personal issues: she steals things. Wearing an old-lady disguise (excellent makeup by William Tuttle) she robs her husband’s bank right during his grand opening. Penelope then waves the cash around various stores, gives a thousand-dollar bill to a Salvation Army Major (Arthur Malet), and parades suspiciously through the investigation launched by the calm and collected Detective Lt. Bixbee (Peter Falk, Wood’s previous co-star in The Great Race).

Bixbee intuits from the beginning that Penelope is guilty, but shows little interest in arresting her. Both Bixbee and Dr. Mannix admit to being entranced by Penelope in different ways. The psychiatrist Mannix helps Penelope when she decides to return the money. One recurring sidebar gag involves husband James’ old flame Mildred (Norma Crane), who tempted him on Penelope’s wedding day, and continues to do so at every opportunity. Also, the high-couture sharpies Sadaba and Ducky (Lila Kedrova & Lou Jacobi) try to blackmail Penelope with the near-priceless Givenchy dress that she ditched because she wore it during the robbery. When Penelope tries to confess, nobody takes her seriously. She gives a party for her husband’s friends with the idea of publicly returning the jewelry she stole from them. But even that doesn’t seem to work.

 

Always feeling forced and anachronistic, Penelope movie veers between barely adequate farce material and lame slapstick. Wood’s Penelope tries not to be upset when Norma Crane’s Mildred repeatedly insists on making out with her perplexed husband. Pursuing a robber into his bank’s ladies’ room, Ian Bannen and two oversized cops cram themselves into a tiny toilet stall, like sardines. The worst scene is a throwaway flashback to Penelope’s college days, where a science professor chases her around a school lab, tearing off her dress. The professor is the great Jonathan Winters, but he isn’t given any dialogue … that in itself should explain the level of cluelessness involved. On the other hand, the scene does have a gorilla, so we know Michael Schlesinger will approve.

Penelope might be Zsa Zsa Gabor’s idea of an Social Issue movie: our heroine is a thief who wants to be caught, to get the attention of her distracted husband. Wouldn’t you know it, events conspire to prevent Penelope from being caught or confessing — everybody she expects to turn her in has an ulterior motive (the blackmailers, for example) not to cooperate. Peter Falk’s detective seems to know that the case is just a domestic trifle, and patiently waits for Penelope and James to work out their differences. She finally robs the bank a second time, just to force the issue!

As should be clear, Penelope’s flighty brand of wish-it-was-Screwball Comedy doesn’t fit well into the movie climate of 1966, at time when sophistication (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) was in style. All the partygoers are in the right spirit, but the basic idea must have seemed weak, even in the year of awful efforts like The Singing Nun. The cutesy, lazy and mainly irrelevant comedy is the closest MGM or anybody came to a non-Disney ‘Shook-Up-Shopping Cart Movie.

The movie never hits its comedic groove but it is fitfully amusing. I was entertained because I enjoyed its individual cast members. Most of the star performances are way too good for the material. Natalie Wood is utterly charming, graceful and a terrific good sport at all times. Her ‘kook’ act is never more than skit quality. She sings her Hip Chick song in the nightclub so poorly, we can’t tell if she’s trying to be bad, or if she’s unaware how weak her voice comes across. Yet Wood is a natural at double-takes, wacky reactions and physical comedy in general. Remember the mostly forced humor of her equally dated Sex and the Single Girl?  Ms. Wood kept that show afloat by pure will. It’s still better than Penelope.

Can viewers be persuaded to try a clunker comedy, just because everyone in it is terrific?  Or, if everyone in it is terrific, can it really be called a clunker?

Dick Shawn’s brand of nervous schtick never clicked with this viewer; even in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World he seemed to be working far too hard to act crazy. As he plays the psychiatrist with a modicum of restraint, this is the best thing I’ve seen him do so far. More than one reviewer calls Peter Falk’s detective a warm-up for his TV show Columbo, but I don’t agree. He doesn’t at all push an accent, and he doesn’t let his left eye steal scenes. He’s a pleasure to watch, playing practically as would Cary Grant. Lt. Bixbee has a leading man’s calm and grace, never getting over-excited.

Another surprise is Ian Bannen, the under-praised English star who contributed sharp character portraits to Station Six-Sahara, The Hill, The Flight of the Phoenix, The Offence and The Mackintosh Man. I especially like him as the gentleman horse aficionado in Bite the Bullet. Has Bannen done broad comedy elsewhere?  I wouldn’t have thought he’d have such a knack for it — he sells the bad jokes like a pro, and he’s always likable.

Although we can’t say Bannen has anything like chemistry with Natalie Wood, he gets the film’s only solid laughs. The finale requires his James to be so confused by Penelope’s disguises, that he starts seeing old ladies and taxi drivers speaking with her voice. When he finally reconnects with the real Penelope, he thinks she’s a mental delusion. It doesn’t sound promising at all, but Bannen’s perplexed face-pulling is really funny.

 

A parade of supporting and bit players score big in small parts. I already mentioned Lila Kedrova and Lou Jacobi, who perform their silly gags with admirable finesse. Norma Crane’s determined home-wrecker Mildred (just above ↑) is impressively seductive. She’s twice as funny when one knows that a few seasons later, Ms. Crane would play Tevye’s wife Goldie in the film version of Fiddler on the Roof.  Arlene Golonka has some good bits as a streetwalker with the name Honeysuckle Rose, and Carl Ballantine is okay as an avant-garde musician. Actress Amzie Strickland earns special mention as the bank teller held up by Penelope in disguise, twice. Actor-writer-director Bill Gunn (The Angel Levine, Losing Ground, The Landlord) has a quiet part as Peter Falk’s police partner. And my old acquaintance Ignatius Wolfington (1941) is in for a tiny bit as a shopkeeper.

Director Arthur Hiller gives the show his all; the camera direction generates more pep than average for MGM’s dated comedies of the middle ‘sixties, like Quick! Before It Melts. But Hiller can do little with materail like the college flashback, with Jonathan Winters stripping Wood down to her underwear. A veteran of 1950s TV, Hiller had a wildly uneven career, scoring with excellent pictures like The Careless Years, The Americanization of Emily, Popi, and The Hospital, amid a lot of indifferent busy work assignments (like Tobruk, by coincidence also reviewed today). I can’t fathom his Love Story, an exceptional blockbuster that seems to have succeeded through pure vapidity. Hiller’s direction is consistently competent, no matter what he’s stuck with.

Natalie Wood apparently considered Penelope the last straw in a sagging career arc; it followed the ambitious but underperforming This Property is Condemned and Inside Daisy Clover. After this ill-advised farce she regrouped and bounced back in Paul Mazursky’s much more confident ‘New Hollywood’ comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Penelope is a beauty. Helped by decent art direction, Harry Stradling’s bright images make MGM’s high-key comedy style look attractive. The show switches nimbly between real Manhattan locations and the MGM backlot. Some rear-projection setups look greenish but otherwise the show looks great from one end to the other. And Natalie Wood is no less dazzling than in her better-remembered star vehicles.

‘Johnny’ Williams’ music score is good but not as memorable as the pretty melodies he would compose for the next year’s Fitzwilly. I’m afraid that if you asked me before 1969’s The Reivers what Williams did music for, I would only have thought of TV’s Lost in Space.

The WAC’s disc has two extras, a promotional short subject about costume designer Edith Head, and the original trailer. Yes, the wince-inducing disc artwork is original poster art for Penelope. I’d gripe, but so much ’60s ad art was in bad taste, that it would be wrong to single out this example.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Penelope
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: uh, not as bad as it might be
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette on Edith Head, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
January 21, 2020
(6193pene)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.

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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.