It’s wacky, daffy and incredibly square, yet Frank Tashlin’s late career Doris Day romp has a certain gotta-watch interest factor: the male cast of clowns performs the sexist comedy well, and Ms. Day’s fantastic screen personality brightens everything. Space-age executive lothario Rod Taylor hires Doris just for romantic purposes, while Arthur Godfrey, John McGiver, Dom DeLuise, Edward Andrews, Paul Lynde and Dick Martin execute dated slapstick amid ‘futuristic’ gadgets from the days of Buck Rogers.
The Glass Bottom Boat
Warner Archive Collection
1966 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 110 min. / Street Date March 26, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Doris Day, Rod Taylor, Arthur Godfrey, John McGiver, Dom DeLuise,
Ellen Corby, Edward Andrews, Eric Fleming, Paul Lynde, Dick Martin.
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Film Editor: John McSweeney
Original Music: Frank DeVol
Written by Everett Freeman
Produced by Everett Freeman and Martin Melcher
Directed by Frank Tashlin
The great director Frank Tashlin is responsible for many of Jerry Lewis’s best pictures, and in the 1950s made a string of hits that found the sentimental-satiric center of the culture’s mood: Susan Slept Here, Artists and Models, The Girl Can’t Help It, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? In some pictures Tashlin’s sensibility has the same effect as modern art from some other dimension; I’m particularly fond of Bachelor Flat for its blank-faced cartoon absurdity.
Tashlin’s second MGM picture The Glass Bottom Boat now seems a very strange movie. It’s a work for hire for writer-producer Everett Freeman, a comedy veteran whose credits reach back to W.C. Fields’ 1939 You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man. The co-producer Martin Melcher was Doris Day’s husband and manager, who reportedly squandered her money and prevented her career from finding outlets other than the ‘virgin next door’ image that started in the 1950s. Yet the strongest thing in TGBB is by far Doris Day — her bright personality outshines a broad comedy that’s seriously out of step with the times. The clash of Day’s wholesome image with high-tech futurism and spy shenanigans is meant to generate big laughs, but Freeman’s script feels like a lot of blackout skits lifted from Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show.
Inspired satire it’s not, but it is handsomely directed by Frank Tashlin, who knows how to flatter Doris Day and gives the show a strong narrative flow. Day treads nimbly through a minefield of Jerry Lewis- grade slapstick, all performed well but feeling rather tired. The surprise is that this ‘freewheeling’ ’60s comedy is much more sexist than similar shows from the ’50s and ’40s. Male-centric ‘wild comedy’ never felt as constricting.
The cornball antics feel like a slightly more permissive update of MGM’s squeaky-clean sex farces written by George Wells for Debbie Reynolds and Shirley MacLaine: Ask Any Girl, The Honeymoon Machine, The Gazebo. The animated title sequence aligns with those pictures, and also MGM’s Paula Prentiss/Jim Hutton comedies. The setting is the space-race years, with fashionable nods to hi-tech research and spy films. Several science-fiction concepts are teased — an gravity/anti-gravity device, mainly — but the real emphasis is on basic farce ingredients: misunderstandings, mistaken identities, impersonations. Much of Tashlin’s constant physical slapstick feels awkward, forced.
Taking on the cartoon joke hurdles is Day, along with her lively supporting cast. Behind mid-sixties eye makeup that disguises crow’s feet but also her natural personality (see the Catalina Island featurette), Day must work all the harder to project the old fresh-faced charm. Her character is a widow, an idea established just to cover the obvious notion that she’s too old to act quite so virginal. Her character in The Glass Bottom Boat isn’t even opposed to sex – it’s just that the tasteless slapstick gags keep foiling her bedroom plans with straight man Rod Taylor.
Cheerful Jennifer Nelson (Day) spends her weekends playing mermaid for the Catalina Island glass bottom tourist excursion boat of her father Axel Nordstrom (Arthur Godfrey); but she loses her mermaid tail to a rude fisherman’s hook. Jennifer begins a new job as a tour guide at Spaceways Inc., the futuristic space lab of millionaire playboy Bruce Templeton (Rod Taylor). Bruce has invented an artificial gravity device called GISMO (Gravity Inertial Stabilized Manned Observatory), which promises a massive government contract with General Bleecker (Edward Andrews). But the playboy executive is more interested in pursuing Jennifer — he was the fisherman back at Catalina. Bruce enlists Jennifer as his personal biographer, which requires her to follow him on his rounds of space research facilities. She is soon visiting Bruce’s futuristic house in the Santa Monica mountains, meeting his housekeeper Anna (Ellen Corby) and tangling with the house’s crazy hi-tech devices. She crosses more slapstick wires with a stereo installer, Julius Pritter (Dom LeLuise) and the randy Spaceways executive Zack Molloy (Dick Martin, of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In). But the government has espionage concerns with GISMO. Spaceways’ security chief Homer Cripps (Paul Lynde) suspects Jennifer because she makes phone calls to her dog Vladimir. Government agent Edgar Hill (Eric Fleming of Queen of Outer Space) wonders if Jennifer is a Soviet spy … and the intrigue complications balloon from there.
Hollywood in the 1960s had real problems. Overtaken by more frank and relevant foreign pictures, changing values about sex and politics, and cultural trends like The Beatles and James Bond, our movies spent several years trying to be hip and trendy within the confines of the Production Code. With the entrenched studio system reserving top film work to veterans that learned their trade thirty and forty years before, MGM turned out several years’ worth of embarrassing comedies. The Glass Bottom Boat is a fine showcase for Doris Day’s star power, but it is still the kind of spectacle one stares at rather than laughs with … the majority of the jokes feel very, very OLD.
The script loads the story with hi-tech schtick. Day (or rather, her double) visits a rocket assembly plant, while rear projection lets her witness space capsule testing and the notorious Rocketdyne test lab up in Simi Valley. Tashlin milks the milieu for non-existent comedy gags — the then- fairly new concept of the Clean Room, for instance. The rest of the ‘futurism’ dates back to 1930s cartoons. A remote controlled speedboat repeatedly goes out of control (funn-nee!). A robot vacuum sprints out of a cupboard every time someone drops anything on the floor. A super-oven burns a cake to a crisp. At least ten minutes are used up while Day and Rod Taylor try to be Laurel & Hardy, tangling with ladders and ashtrays and kitchen doo-dads that come out of the wall. Because of a mixup in the dark, Jennifer ends up making out with the wrong man.
The image of a modern woman in the workplace is the opposite of futuristic. Day’s natural habitat is her fancy house in the Santa Monica foothills (how does she afford that?) with her kooky dog and kooky neighbors — George Tobias and Alice Pearce, borrowed as a unit from TV’s Bewitched. The implication is that serious science stuff at Spaceways is just no place for a woman — she catches her high heeled shoe in a dust-cleaning grate, is uncomfortable with heights, and stumbles foolishly into the GOG– like anti-gravity room.
Jennifer’s mistaken-identity coincidences are nothing compared to the breezy way that ’60s audiences accepted Bruce Templeton’s playboy machinations. Templeton thinks it a great idea to assign Jennifer to a fake job for the purposes of seduction. He invents a project called ‘Project Venus,’ which supposedly involves taking Venus and Mars out of their orbits and moving them closer to each other. Templeton is a hi-tech Hugh Hefner soaked in consumer wonders: cars, boats, helicopters and a Mulholland Drive super-pad that rivals the house in Forbidden Planet. It’s an endorsement of Doris Day’s basic charm and intelligence that Jennifer doesn’t come off as a total bimbo.
Romantically speaking, when Doris Day’s face goes serious and she says ‘I love you,’ the picture jumps back on track: we want Jennifer to get what she wants, even in this silly farce. She turns down Bruce’s invite to shack up, sings a song to the moon and then decides to submit to seduction on her own volition. The movie has tried to make Jennifer’s home life ‘kooky’ but the marvelous Day grounds everything — she transcends the film’s faux-hip woo-hoo attitude towards sex.
When we hear Frank DeVol’s overwrought spy music we know that TGBB will swing into total spy spoof silliness, sub-Batman stuff with bozo CIA agents and bozo Kremlin spies unable to figure out the espionage plans of the innocent Jennifer. In Tashlinesque fantasy visions, Jennifer is transformed into a trench-coated femme fatale, and then Mata Hari in full slinky dance costume. The last half-hour of the film is an extended party sequence packed with mistaken identities, impersonation shenanigans and silly spy hijinks. Bruce Templeton’s security aides are a pack of emasculated fuddy-duddies, all played by comic favorites. John McGiver is present but very underused. Dom DeLuise is an infantile agent who struggles through stupid slapstick but exudes comic sweetness.
Paul Lynde’s fussy security man could be a one-man research subject for the topic of Tashlin and plastic sexuality. Lynde goes undercover in drag, and in those scenes seems more comfortable than when he’s playing straight. Edward Andrews’ foolish general fancies himself a dapper ladies’ man; Jennifer sets up a midnight tryst with both the General and Dick Martin’s oversexed executive. The two men end up in bed together for an extended gay joke, complete with disapproving no-see no-tell reactions from Rod Taylor and Paul Lynde.
Rod Taylor’s spot-on performance serves TGBB very well — he never lets the cornball slapstick get the better of him. Perhaps what saves the film is that, when Jennifer overhears Bruce say that she’s too stupid to be a spy, she takes charge. She out-spies everyone, figuratively pulling down the pants of the patronizing good guys, and then evading the murderous bad guys. She thus does not yield control of the show or her destiny. Yet she still wants the lying trickster Bruce at the comic fade-out.
The script makes sure that the ‘normal folk’ Alice Pearce, George Tobias and Arthur Godfrey are instrumental in capturing the real spies. Godfrey’s laid-back boat skipper hog-ties two snoopy G-Men just on basic principle. That anti-authoritative attitude doesn’t extend to Jennifer — when she gets one of the real spies to confess, she suggest that he go to the Feds and ‘name names.’ In a gag that Frank Tashlin probably loved, Robert Vaughn appears momentarily as Napoleon Solo of The Man From U.N.C.L.E., complete with his original theme music. The show had a full 61-day shooting schedule, which must have let Tashlin try out other experiments as well — his direction shows a high technical polish.
A couple of years later Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In became a huge TV hit, and The Glass Bottom Boat received several network TV showings. Everett Freeman tried to launch Rowan & Martin as a film duo, an effort that didn’t fly. We don’t know if Doris Day liked Frank Tashlin as a director. They immediately moved on to Caprice together, but that may have been the doing of the greedy Martin Melcher. Frank Tashlin’s directing career soon came to a halt, a casualty of the Easy Rider revolution. It’s likely that none of these pictures were satisfying for Tashlin, even as he tried to incorporate more outlandish notions from his cartoon days. In Caprice, Doris Day dashes into a movie theater, where the movie Caprice is playing. Did a viewing of that meta concept inspire Paul Bartel’s legendary student film The Secret Cinema?
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Glass Bottom Boat is a stunning encoding of this Panavision- Metrocolor show — the picture shows no sign of fading, not even during dissolves and opticals. The good audio highlights Tashlin’s inventive soundtrack. In addition to occasional cartoon noises to go with slapstick gags, Tashlin employs odd cues to great effect, like a Hawaiian guitar “Aloha Oe” twang in the boat crash scenes. A tango is worked into hanky-panky in Bruce Templeton’s guest rooms, and that spy theme is more effective than one might think. Doris Day does sing on occasion. The title tune credited to Joe Lubin is practically identical to The Mockingbird Song, and Day performs yet another short reprise of Que Será, Será. Perhaps emulating Frank Capra, Tashlin stages a live sing-along between Day and Arthur Godfrey. The song isn’t much but the marvelous Doris Day generates a terrific spirit of party fun.
As is par for Warner Archive discs, the extras from the DVD have been ported over unchanged, probably to avoid spending money on a legal review (my guess). Arthur Godfrey narrates a featurette on Catalina, and a piece about NASA shows every bit of the film’s faked ‘research’ footage while a distracted Doris recites some facts about the Apollo program. By the look of the architecture, exteriors of Rod Taylor’s Spaceway’s Inc. is a just-completed local college campus, perhaps California State University at Northridge. A third featurette co-sponsored by the Cotton industry features a ‘Miss Cotton’ walking around the rotting sets on MGM’s backlot while a narrator tells us they are in daily use. Doris Day appears to be having a fine time shooting costume tests for the film; we readily believe that her bright and cheerful attitude was honest and sincere. Besides a rather painful original trailer, we’re given the Oscar-winning 1965 cartoon The Dot and the Line, directed by Frank Tashlin’s old Looney Tunes cohort Chuck Jones.
In 1994 Bill Krohn interviewed Joe Dante on Frank Tashlin; Dante opined that Tashlin worked better with actors with more defined comedy personas, like Bob Hope and Martin & Lewis. Adored singer and Everywoman Star Doris Day didn’t have that, so the comedy had to be built around them. Also, The Glass Bottom Boat has little of what Tashlin does best, borderline surreal gags. Everything we see is quite literal — even the anti-gravity gag is approached from a literal point of view. Working as a director for hire, Tashlin doesn’t get to exercise his most creative muscles.
I’ve read analyses that defend Frank Tashlin against claims that his feature film work was out of date and irrelevant. But Tashlin has also been credited with keeping older forms of comedy alive, particularly slapstick. Perhaps the appeal of Doris Day and Rod Taylor is what keeps TGBB afloat, but one can’t discount Tashlin’s professionalism with his large cast of comics.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
The Glass Bottom Boat
Movie: Good +/-
Supplements: Three featurettes, cartoon The Dot and the Line, trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 16, 2019
Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson