George Seaton’s literal feel-good comedy is the flipside of pandemic films like Contagion: a powerful virus ‘cures’ grumpiness and bad vibes, encouraging a kind of Urban Utopia. The picture has nothing more to say than ‘have a nice day,’ yet it’s difficult to argue with any positive sentiment, especially these days. George Peppard and Mary Tyler Moore battle nobly with the material, which varies from good parody (Dom DeLuise) to awful vaudeville schtick to wafer-thin satire to terrible musical interludes. A Toucan bird from South America steals the show — his trainer Ray Berwick should have won an Oscar.
What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?
KL Studio Classics
1968 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 94 min. / Street Date August 24, 2021 / available through Kino Lorber / 24.95
Starring: George Peppard, Mary Tyler Moore, Susan Saint James, Don Stroud, Dom DeLuise, John McMartin, Charles Lane, Nathaniel Frey, George Furth, Morty Gunty, Frank Campanella, Thelma Ritter, Moses Gunn, Cleavon Little, John P. Ryan, Titos Vandis.
Cinematography: Ernesto Caparrós
Art Directors: Alexander Golitzen, Henry Bumstead
Costumes: Edith Head
Film Editor: Alma Macrorie
Original Music: Frank De Vol
Screen Story and Screenplay: George Seaton, Robert Pirosh from the story I Am Thinking of My Darling by Vincent McHugh
Produced and Directed by George Seaton
Back in the late 1960s the moviemaking establishment was still in power, and some established producer-directors were still making movies as if nothing in the filmmaking world was changing. George Seaton had been writing since 1934 and directing since ’45; he’s one of those talents that hits on a solid winner every few years (Miracle on 34th Street, The Country Girl, Teacher’s Pet, Airport) with the effect that his mediocre losers did him little harm. Seaton seems to have been personally committed to the 1968 Universal release What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?, a pleasant-enough idea that he’s just too square to fully develop.
He does elaborate the premise, and his movie is genuinely sincere. It’s just that the spirit of What’s So Bad hails from the wrong side of the generational divide. Writer Seaton peers out over his typewriter, sees the awful problems of the world, and formulates a cheerful fantasy that will give us a reason to smile, have hope, and swear off pessimism. His viewpoint clings to the notion that there’s one consensus truth about how the world works; his concept grossly oversimplifies the nature of urban strife and anger into mere poor attitude and bad vibes.
Seaton enlists a considerable talent pool into his fantasy. Much of his show is highly watchable, and every scene with a certain South American personality of the avian persuasion is delightful.
No, it’s not about the cannabis industry.
Beatniks Pete, Liz, Barney, Aida and Conrad (George Peppard, Mary Tyler Moore, Don Stroud, Susan St. James & Nathaniel Frey) inhabit a filthy run-down Manhattan tenement in the ‘creative’ side of Greenwich Village, where they smoke, drink, and work on art that ponders hopelessness and negativity. But a Toucan bird, the kind with the enormous funny beak, has entered the city carrying a highly contagious airborne virus, a malady that makes its victims feel euphoric and treat other people nicely. Pete contacts the Toucan first and his reaction is immediate — for him the world seems beautiful again. He names the bird ‘Amigo.’ After smiling at the warmth of the sun Pete promptly shaves, cuts his hair, puts on his Madison Avenue suit again and goes back to work. Liz is horrified. Pete purposely passes the virus to the other beatniks, who are likewise transformed into ‘normal’ life-loving folk interested in cleaning up their living spaces and letting the sun and color into their lives.
Meanwhile, The Mayor (John McMartin) resists city health advisor Dr. Shapiro’s (Charles Lane) warning that the spreading virus will cripple the city’s economy — in just one day cigarette and liquor revenues have already plummeted. The Mayor declares a major emergency only when told that euphoric people may stop voting. The police force tries to catch Amigo with nets and tranquilizer guns. Presidential task force leader J. Gardner Monroe (Dom DeLuise) arrives from Washington wearing a sealed bubble helmet, and with his nerdy assistant Murgatroyd (George Furth) decides that the Toucan virus is a Communist plot. Pete and Liz do what they can to protect Amigo, whose colorful beak is too easy to spot. Liz has also abandoned her pessimist mindset, but in a different way. As Dr. Shapiro explains, not every New Yorker is susceptible to the Toucan virus… but many people are naturally happier when the general environment is happier. When the virus runs its course Pete may go back to being an anti-social Bohemian, leaving Liz feeling happier, but alone.
Is there a ‘herd immunity’ against feeling good?
The nearly forgotten comic fantasy What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? has become unexpectedly topical for this Anno Two of the pandemic. The medical end of the idea is developed quite well, with various experts describing the highly contagious virus in ways that would fit any contagion affecting a big city population, from Panic in the Streets forward. The Mayor goes on TV to call for calm and to demonstrate how to wear a face mask; a concerted effort is made to isolate the source of the virus. The not-so-funny truth is that the movie’s response to a comedy virus is more coordinated and competent than the 2020 handling of the real pandemic that has already killed millions worldwide.
Concept-wise, the promising premise encounters problems from the get-go. The exaggerated beatniks we see are already ten years out of date, and a screaming cliché, such as the nonconformist who spends her days in a burlap sack. Are these meant to be 1968 hippies? If so the movement is being slandered as the butt of a joke. Seaton’s overall cure for the curse of disaffected nonconformism — the movie’s title — could be a cliché printed on a button, like ‘War is not good for children and other living things’,’Today is the first day of the rest of your life’, or just ‘have a nice day.’ We begin with a montage claiming that all New Yorkers are angry and abusive, from people on the street to the Soviet ambassador screaming ‘Nyet, Nyet!’ What’s So Bad? proposes that there are no real problems, just bad attitudes, and that strife and suffering and injustice would be solved if people were just a little nicer to each other. On the surface interpersonal level we agree with this 100% — my own attitude swings by several degrees depending on how well my casual interactions with strangers go. But the concept gets silly very quickly … Seaton clearly doesn’t want to get ‘political’ except to make fun of everyone, from crumb-bum hippie slackers to an uptight Washington power broker.
Perhaps the star leads responded to the romantic possibilities, and thought the show might top Breakfast at Tiffany’s. They give it their all. George Peppard had recently been starring almost exclusively as tough guys in genre westerns, war pictures and crime films. He wasn’t seen enough as a light comedian, so it’s good to see him smile as well.
With her ‘Laura Petrie’ persona Mary Tyler Moore always won our instant approval, but she’s a total bust at trying to impersonate a counterculture dropout. It’s really insulting to see the instant conversion of Liz’s lifestyle — across a single cut her unkempt protest singer is transformed into a high-class model with outfits coordinated by Edith Head … did Liz ‘cheefully’ rob a bank to get the money? Yet we identify with Ms. Moore well enough to be carried through the film’s sillier scenes. In the 1930s Moore might have been another Jean Arthur, if movies like that were still being made. Of course, she hit it big on TV.
What in the show doesn’t work very well? The jokes are too unfocused to be called satire, and some of them are groaningly uninspired, like the sequences in Pete’s advertising agency. To spread the Toucan Flu, Pete disguises himself as a German philosopher-guru and breathes heavily on all his friends. The scene requires Peppard to do a terrible Ludwig Von Drake accent and wear a beard — it’s not good enough for a Johnny Carson skit.
When the government intervenes in the crisis, Seaton’s brisk pace jumps between our lovers’ attempts to save Amigo and some funny Dom DeLuise antics in the emergency command center. His interrogation of Pete and Liz in the isolation room is good skit material. Seaton aces one slapstick gag worthy of the Three Stooges, when DeLuise accidentally nails poor George Furth in the butt with a tranquilizer dart.
The film’s main theme song is pleasant and feels correct for the show; Frank De Vol’s overall music score sounds like ‘zany’ TV work; all that’s missing is a laugh track. The protest song given to Liz to sing goes nowhere. For some awful reason Seaton has Liz and her girlfriend return to their ‘straight’ pre-beatnik jobs as sexy singers in a nightclub. The pop tune for that scene just seems all wrong, as does the happy-happy conclusion with the couple skipping away into Central Park.
Entirely Successful is every scrap of film that features the great Ray Berwick’s trained Toucan, Amigo. They chose well, as the colorful bird guarantees a smile even without a virus — just seeing the way Amigo hops raises our spirits. Ditto the way he eats grapes. George Peppard performs a funny trick or two with the bird. What’s So Bad?’s attempt at editorial hip-ness pays off in one stylistic digression, a TV sports ‘instant replay’ of Amigo catching a grape. If Alfred Hitchcock really wanted to be funny, he would have had Ray Berwick train an entire flock of Toucans for a certain avian sci-fi thriller.
A big section of the show goes for laughs with a very broad Amigo gag. Mary Tyler Moore’s Liz smuggles Amigo away from the menacing cops by sticking him under her dress and pretending that she’s about to deliver a baby. Is that a real Toucan sticking its beak up out of her dress to ask for another grape? Ms. Moore’s mugging is a string of funny faces that surely played well in 1968, even if the whole gimmick now seems far too desperate. The thin ‘pregnant lady’ jokes are saved by Thelma Ritter’s welcome cameo appearance as a sweet lady in the hospital waiting room.
With so many quick comedy bits on view, some are home runs. At 43 minutes 30 seconds a street interviewer encounters a loud and brassy woman eager to speak her mind. The woman is one of several incidental bit players that perfectly nail the tone Seaton is going for. I recognize the actress but couldn’t identify her.
Although the interior scenes are lighted just like a Universal TV movie, much of Seaton’s slapstick nonsense plays out on location on the streets of Manhattan, to good effect. Numerous familiar faces peek through in support of the leads. Susan St. James is given little to do, and Don Stroud just plays a trumpet on the roof and helps clean up. Cleavon Little is one of the beatnik crowd. He smiles in joy when infected, but I don’t remember him being given a dialogue line. I noticed fave actor John P. Ryan only in a single shot, selling housewares. Titos Vandis’s virus-happy ship’s captain does a regulation ‘Zorba’ dance. The warmest surprise is the participation of Nathaniel Frey. In his last of only three feature appearances Frey isn’t shown to any great advantage. But we smile just thinking of his terrific baseball catcher in Damn Yankees from ten years earlier. All the original reviews of What’s So Bad? noted that George Seaton had made Thelma Ritter a star in her first movie, Miracle on 34th Street. This was her last feature appearance before passing away in 1969.
What will the New Normal be?
Just when did George Seaton begin his What’s So Bad? project? The comedy could have pre-dated the popularization of the hippie culture, yet it seems to fit best as a response to the era’s drug-trip movies. Perhaps Seaton saw Roger Corman’s The Trip and decided that the world needed a healthier movie alternative, without allusions to the paranoia over marijuana and LSD. Yet the film’s ‘mood modification’ of a third of the population of NYC reminds me of a much earlier ‘drug’ comedy, the rejuvenation elixir mixed by monkeys in Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business. In both movies an artificially-induced ‘altered state’ threatens a society that requires sober predictability from its citizens. Interestingly, a Variety collection of science fiction film reviews lists both of these as comedy fantasies. The trade paper called What’s So Bad? ‘delightful’ and predicted that it would become a box office success.
I don’t feel comfortable dissing this comedy show as silly, or corny, or dated; we expect such things in a pop movie from any era. What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? fares considerably better than, say, MGM’s The Impossible Years or Columbia’s Getting Straight. Excepting the marvelous Toucan Amigo I find the picture only occasionally funny. But it’s almost always interesting and scores very high for originality. I haven’t seen it since it debuted on network TV, probably less than a year after its brief theatrical run. It seemed very funny. I loved the thought balloons by which Amigo ‘talks,’ even though his remarks are not always very witty. I’ve never forgotten George Seaton’s movie: I think I responded to its basic positivity apart from its merit as filmmaking. If you’re a fan of Mary Tyler Moore and aren’t bothered by a few lame notions and stereotypes, the show might very well become a favorite.
The KL Studio Classics Blu-ray of What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? is a terrific new widescreen encoding of a movie that hasn’t been seen in its correct screen shape since it was new. I’ll bet that most people already aware of the show first saw it pan-scanned on network TV, as I did. It definitely works better like this. Universal was on some fool’s errand of an economy drive in the late ’60s, and produced a number of features in the half-frame Techniscope format. The image has a higher granularity but better depth-of-field; optical sections like the title sequence and the cartoon dialogue shots look appreciably degraded. I can’t see this film being a good subject for Techniscope: I’ll bet that Ray Berwick’s excellent trained bird tricks didn’t require many takes.
The filmic expertise of Howard S. Berger & Nathaniel Thompson regarding movies of this era goes beyond horror, Eurocrime and murder thriller genres. Don’t worry, Nathaniel reminds us that the Toucan contagion arrives on a boat, just as did Dracula and his plague rats. We learn that this Blu-ray marks the film’s debut on home video in any form. The source book from the 1940s is reportedly quite different, and is not about a ‘Happy Plague.’ Judging by their giddy enthusiasm Howard and Nate received a touch of the Toucan as well. Howard drifts into conversational mode but never veers off topic. The pair are wholly uncritical — when Liz and her girlfriend perform their tacky nightclub act, we’re encouraged to enjoy the great color! I see nothing ‘morally disturbing’ in this very original show; I just wonder what a more imaginative writer-director like David Swift might have done with it.
Two trailers are included, a short flat piece with an expensive (for ’68) optical opening, and a much longer ‘scope item that can’t disguise the broadness of the film’s humor. Frank De Vol’s ‘wah wah’ comedy music scoring even sticks out in the trailers.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?
Movie: Good +/-
Supplements: Commentary by Howard S. Berger & Nathaniel Thompson, trailers.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 15, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson