Release Date: March 4, 1966
Runtime: 119 minutes
Director: Russell Rouse
Cast: Stephen Boyd; Milton Berle; Elke Sommer; Jill St. John; Tony Bennett; a slew of other Oscar winners/nominees
While watching this train wreck of a film, a number of questions occurred to me. The first came to me five minutes into the film: Why does the strip club owner almost immediately pull a knife on Frankie and Hymie when they ask for the remainder of their money owed to them? Doesn’t seem like the most productive, not to mention professional, way to do business. That scene pretty much set the tone of the picture: that everything would be over-the-top and have little or no connection to the real world. (Comparisons here to “Showgirls,” made about thirty years later: in the first five minutes of that pic, a hitchhiking Nomi (the lead nutjob) almost immediately pulls a switchblade on the guy who picks her up …all because he asked her her name!) Anyway, having realized what kind of movie this was doomed to be, I settled in to watch the rest. About 20 minutes in, another question occurred to me: Why is there this constant, almost nagging melodramatic music underscoring the entire film? Not just specific scenes that may justify it, but ALL THE SCENES!!! Someone gets up from a chair, the music swells; someone crosses a room, there’s the music again, incessant and irritating. And the music’s so cheesy you need a lactose pill to listen to it!!
Why don’t I at least give a little about the plot before I go any further, huh? Frankie Fane (Stephen Boyd) and Hymie Kelly (Tony Bennett) are best friends of the hoodlum variety, trying to make a buck managing stripper Laurel (Jill St. John). While Laurel is out shaking her money-maker, Frankie and Hymie are living the swinging 60’s lifestyle at Village parties. At one such party, Frankie meets Kay Bergdahl (Elke Sommer), an aspiring costume designer. For some reason, a love-hate relationship develops between the two and Frankie ditches Hymie and Laurel in order to pursue Kay full throttle. He gets a job at the design firm where Kay works and, after work one night, basically forces her to invite him to the rehearsal of an off-Broadway play she’s designing the costumes for.
Here is the first mind-boggling piece of dialogue that made me pause the movie to ensure I’d heard it correctly. Frankie and Kay are talking on the sidewalk outside of the design firm’s building. He says to her: “I can’t offer you a front table at the Waldorf, but I’ll show you the big town. We’ll have Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island too.” Her response: “How very lyrical.” Huh? Anyway, at the rehearsal, Frankie notices that two actors are hopelessly choreographing a lame, LAME fight scene and decides to show them how it’s really done. This catches the eye of Sophie Cantaro (Eleanor Parker), acting coach extraordinaire who takes a liking to Frankie and decides that he has a natural talent that should be brought to the attention of super agent Kappy (Milton Berle – the only one not embarrassing himself in the acting department) and studio head, Regan (Joseph Cotten). Against his better judgment (but because the plot needs him too), Regan signs Frankie to a studio contract and Frankie is on his way. He makes a few movies, but trouble is brewing, primarily because Frankie is such an annoying, bratty, self-absorbed dickhead. He brings Hymie out to Hollywood (sans Laurel who, we learn, has died …so little emotion is exhibited from the characters regarding her death that you would think she’s just a dime-store hooker as opposed to a dear friend) to be his bitch-boy (but, graciously, referred to as his PR man).
Frankie begins overspending, hires a servant, and gets wrapped up in “the life.” Soon, however, Kay is back in the picture, having been brought out to the studio from New York to work with (real-life) famed fashion designer, Edith Head. Pretty soon, Frankie and Kay are an item. But after their first kiss, which immediately leads to a marriage scene, trouble starts to rear its ugly head for the newlyweds. As Kay nags Frankie about leaving so soon after their initial night of marital bliss, he turns to her and says, “I think you go a little far from the gourd in the morning.” I almost peed my pants when I heard this gem! Anyway, as always happens with “rags-to-riches-for-assholes” pictures, Frankie’s fame starts to slide and his bad behavior begins to catch up with him. Soon, Frankie alienates Sophie, Hymie, Kappy, and everyone else who helped him get to where he is and things begin to look bleak. This leads to the third laugh-out-loud line, this time delivered from Hymie while trying to talk some sense into Frankie: “You must be suffering from oxygen starvation!” From what’s on screen, I think everyone involved in this whole production was suffering from oxygen starvation!
Frankie finally hits bottom (he is offered a TV series! !!!!!! – something any self-respecting struggling actor would kill for), but wait …..he gets a phone call from Hymie telling him that he’s been nominated for that year’s Best Actor Academy Award!! Who the hell knows how and why, but he’s nominated nonetheless! Cut to the Awards ceremony (side note: this film was made with the full cooperation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences ….to their everlasting shame, I am willing to bet, so the ceremony has a certain authenticity and realism to it that the rest of this film sorely lacks), and there’s Frankie, twiddling his thumbs nervously, plus Hymie and Kay sitting across the auditorium giving him the evil eye (Hymie actually (poorly) narrates the story, told in flashback from said Oscar ceremony). Sophie is there, as well as all the other characters that have played a part in Frankie’s rise and fall. And the winner is ……?
If you are like me and a lover of great camp, and if you can find this one somewhere, watch it. Chock full of hilarious dialogue, it makes you wonder if the screenwriters actually looked at the pages before they were given to the actors to learn. And that friggin’ music never lets up either! The acting is so over-the-top, it must be seen to be believed. Stephen Boyd as Frankie is so wooden that one may think this is his first acting gig. I’ve seen better acting from first year Meisner students who had no script to guide them! Tony Bennett is, well, it’s a good thing he didn’t quit his day job, let’s put it that way. Elke Sommer isn’t terrible, just generically bad and uninvolving, and her accent doesn’t help much. I mean, she’s gorgeous, but her character is so stupid and vacant that we are unable to care about her because she deserves what she gets. The rest of the cast, almost exclusively populated with former Oscar winners and/or nominees, tries their best and does what they can with the inanity surrounding them, but, in the end, they just deflate along with the film. Maybe the damn music score that followed them everywhere distracted them!