Tuesday, May 06, 2014

10 Cultish Reasons to Vacation with MR. HOBBS

Twilight Time, the extra-mile label that issues limited pressings of major studio films on Blu-ray with isolated music tracks, recently issued Henry Koster's comedy MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION (1962) in a limited edition of 3000 units. Scripted by Nunnally Johnson (who squeezes in a winking reference to Nabokov's LOLITA without mentioning the nymphet's name) from a novel by Edward Streeter, the film stars James Stewart and Maureen O'Hara as a pair of kissy grandparents (she's "36-24-36, and still operational," we're told) who, through her orchestrations, arranges for them to spend yet another vacation in the privacy-cancelling company of their entire unhappy family. As the grown kids and their respective families arrive, we  begin to understand why O'Hara is doing everything she can to avoid another vacation of erotic abandon with her martini-mixing husband.  

I recommend this film to anyone who enjoys wry, low-key situation comedy from this period. The Twilight Time disc has some sync issues that may be inherent in the film itself, but it's nevertheless a handsome presentation. Revisiting the film helped me to better appreciate what a cognizant film it was about the pop culture of its times, and how influential a work it became within certain spheres. So here are some reasons, beyond the obvious, why you might want to splurge on a copy or, if your standards aren't so high, to stream it from Amazon.

1.) When the Hobbs family - Mr. (Roger), Mrs. (Peggy), teenage daughter Katey (Lauri Peters) and TV-addict son Danny (Michael Burns, later the star of Robert Altman's breakthrough picture THAT COLD DAY IN THE PARK) - arrive at their holiday destination, they find themselves faced with a heavily weathered beachfront manse with the mange. As he's about to venture inside for the first time, Hobbs says "If it was good enough for Edgar Allan Poe, it's good enough for us!" (or words to that effect), which - because I'd recently seen and recorded a commentary for Roger Corman's PIT AND THE PENDULUM (1961) - helped me to see that this was indeed another House of Usher posited on the Pacific coastline! Thus, this throwaway line is very likely the first major studio acknowledgement of the great commercial success then being enjoyed by American International Pictures.

2.) I also strongly believe that MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION was one of the seminal influences on AIP's then-forthcoming and highly popular BEACH PARTY series. It was made only one year before the first BEACH PARTY (1963), and according to published sources like Mark Thomas McGee's history of AIP, Lou Rusoff's original script for that film was about young people much closer to Fabian's Beatnik-bearded hot-rodder Joe than the homogenized Italian-American twenty-somethings we finally got in Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. Here we also get the delicate generational conflicts between the young and the once-young, with Roger Hobbs taking an almost anthropological look askance at the problems and pastimes of his children and the families they've begun, not to mention the voluptuous blonde neighbor who flounces over to his towel to be friendly.

3.) This is Valerie Varda as Marika Carter, a heavily-accented buxom beauty who in essence lays the groundwork for Eva Six and particularly Bobbi Shaw in the BEACH PARTY series. 

4.) MR. HOBBS also clearly influenced certain William Castle films yet to come (notably THE SPIRIT IS WILLING, 1965), especially in the way Henry Mancini's wholesomely lazy score (isolated for heightened enjoyment on Twilight Time's Blu-ray) lends ironic gracious-living shadings to the baroque eccentricities of the beach house. This facet also points the way to TV's THE ADDAMS FAMILY which, like THE SPIRIT IS WILLING, was scored by the great Vic Mizzy in a manner that was, I believe, influenced by what Mancini did here but took his principles in an altogether more instrumentally byzantine direction.

5.) It's got Minerva Urecal playing a Swedish maid. Minerva (who must have been out-prettied at auditions by Marjorie Main for years) had been haunting B-movies since the 1930s. She was Bela Lugosi's housekeeper in THE APE MAN (1940), among other things, so this was a step up - and she used her leverage from this film to land a key role in George Pal's THE 7 FACES OF DR. LAO (1964).

6.) If you watch this film without knowing anything about it, you are guaranteed to be startled when the name JOHN SAXON dances out onscreen in multicolored lettering during the animated main titles. It's just not a name that lends itself to multicolored dancing letters, but there he is - playing Stewart and O'Hara's academic son-in-law - a guy so far-fetchedly intellectual, he has actually read WAR AND PEACE, and MOBY DICK to boot.

7.) Fabian, whose character inexplicably begins to sprout a beatnik bead part-way through the movie, has a preposterous pop song number ("Cream Puff," co-authored by Mancini and Johnny Mercer - the men who wrote "Moon River," for crying out loud) with co-star Lauri Peters. The playback is riotously out-of-sync with their lip movements, which raises the question of how much better than the live take could the dubbed track possibly be? The song requires Peters to caress Fabian with the term of endearment "Jelly Roll."

8.) I defy anyone to watch Stewart's "beguiling" (NEW YORK TIMES) performance in this film without frequently flashing back to the work he'd done for Alfred Hitchcock, particularly VERTIGO. The dichotomy thus proposed is an object lesson in an actor intent on demonstrating his range and his willingness to please audiences. His performance here is not exactly subversive, but there is something subversive-lite about the film as a whole - the way it gives family life "a gentle poke in the ribs" (VARIETY) - that would not work so well without Stewart (of whom we began to see a much darker side in the post-war work that began with Anthony Mann's WINCHESTER 73) in the driver's seat.

9.) One of the Hobbs daughters is played by Natalie Trundy. PLANET OF THE APES series regular, 'nuff said.

10.) Yes, that's Beaver's grade school principal Doris Packer serving as the dance hostess, and your eyes do not deceive you: the band's trumpet player is none other than Herb Alpert.


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