JULY IS SUMMER MOVIE MEMORIES MONTH
Last July, looking to try something different, I devoted the entire month to reviewing discs of movies I remember seeing during our family summer vacations in the Catskills. I thought it would be a mildly interesting one-off. Much to my surprise (and delight), I received more emails, tweets, DMs and texts on that nostalgic detour than I usually get on major star/director/genre pieces. So, guess what? Here’s Part Two: the Sequel, possibly a new July Supervistaramacolorscope norm. Enjoy!
In the 1967 Hammer classic Quatermass and the Pit, Hobbs End is the locale for the possible Earthly domain of Satan. For Roger Hobbs, aka Jimmy Stewart, the American version of same might be a ramshackle Victorian frightmare that his overly optimistic wife, Peg (Maureen O’Hara), has leased for the summer. The often hilarious results regarding the latter are now on-view for all to savor in the limited edition Blu-Ray of 1962’s MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION, available from Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment.
I must confess that I’ve been particularly partial to this rollicking look at middle-class (well, upper-middle class) America since I saw it with my folks at the Onteora movie emporium, located high in the Catskill mountain retreat of Fleischmann’s, NY, when I was eight. I loved it then, as did the packed theater of (mostly) vacationing city dwellers, and I pretty much feel the same now; of course, my maturity (HA!) has pierced the veil of the movie’s supposed fluffy lightweight trappings. Despite the WASPy family values yuk-yuk stuff, and beautiful brightly lit DeLuxe Color CinemaScope compositions, MR. HOBBS quite often reveals a dark side of Americana that thematically is closer to film noir than to uproarious sitcom fare. Or more Squeaky Fromme than squeaky clean.
This is no accident, as it’s based on a novel by Edward Streeter, revered for his sardonic views on mainstream USA. That his best-known work (book and movie) is Father of the Bride should be the enticing contradictory warning sign. Like Bride, HOBBS‘ title character is a successful breadwinner, steeped in a “respectable” profession (the former’s Spencer Tracy was a lawyer; HOBBS‘ Stewart is a banker). Both have sired essentially ungrateful families who seem to get vicarious thrills from ignoring, snubbing, insulting and humiliating pater at the drop of a lead pipe. Streeter takes what should be euphoric events and turns them into a Dante’s Inferno Disneyland. For Tracy, the wedding in Bride is a surreal near-Kafka-esque horror; so is the summertime sojourn for Stewart. Dreaming for a serene month with his glamorous wife, Hobbs is stunned to learn that they are to spend August in an upscale Northern California vacation trap-by-the-sea. Insult to injury, Mrs. Hobbs has invited their two married daughters (and their terrifying spawn) to join them. As narrator Stewart implies to the audience, it’s not that he actually hates them, it’s just that…well, yeah, he hates them. Once one meets the respective broods, it’s easy to see why. One daughter (Lily Gentle, the precocious teen from Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?) is married to a cheating, self-absorbed psychology professor (John Saxon); the other (Planet of the Apes’ Natalie Trundy) is spliced to a quick-tempered loose cannon (Josh Peine) who has refused to allow his wife to inform their in-laws that he’s been out of work for more than a half a year.
Furthermore, Hobbs has his two teenybopper kids to contend with – a sexually blossoming nymph (Laurie Peters) hobbled by her new braces, and a TV-violence-addicted son (Michael Burns) whose only reason for acknowledging his disrespected father is to supply him with “…a copy of Playboy every month.” There’s also their live-in cook, an aged battleaxe refugee from Eastern Europe – Monogram’s answer to Marjorie Main, the ubiquitous Minerva Urecal. Urecal has some of the picture’s funniest moments. As the Hobbs clan first sets sight on the rather bleak coastline, a perky O’Hara inquires if the surroundings remind the servant of her homeland. “Vorse!,” replies the stoneface in a thick accent. Urecal bolts early, having been outraged by Stewart’s foul language. This confounds the couple until Hobbs retraces his verbal steps (realizing that his suggestion of getting some “sun on the beach” was grossly misinterpreted). I should take a moment to reflect on my original theater-going experience, as the aforementioned Playboy and “beach” lines are forever etched in my brain. On both these occasions, a young mother sitting behind us clapped her hands over her son’s ears (he was around my age). “I thought this was a family movie,” she groaned out loud. As if the mere mention of Playboy Magazine would turn her progeny into Jackie the Ripper! Well, it was 58 years ago.
Admitting that their summery residence hasn’t been topped “…since Dragonwyck,” the Hobbses attempt to see the dreary scenario as a glass half-full. “If it was good enough for Edgar Allan Poe…” spouts a cynical Roger before tripping through a collapsed rotted stairway. At least they’re grateful for the manse’s electricity…until they switch on the bulb. “This isn’t a light – it’s a DARK!,” exclaims Stewart in his inimitable manner. And that perfectly describes the movie: a dark light…a frothy dark light, more kin to the actor’s Anthony Mann outings than his forays into Mr. Smith Goes to Washington‘s beloved Capracorn.
Stewart plays the befuddled card with all the frustration of Scottie Ferguson in a Carry On flick, notably when trying to connect the indoor plumbing and running water. Failing, he calls the local energetic handyman, who arrives immersed in terracotta-stained clothing. Shaking Peters’ and O’Hara’s hands smears them with unmentionable particles revealed to be the remnants of a neighbor’s cesspool. Sharing a party line likewise proves bodily function disgusting, as their phone hoarding sharers are medical atrocity junkies, perennially relishing tales of exploded cysts, inflamed oozing livers and other organ malfunctions.
Escaping for a dawn rest on the shore, Stewart resigns himself to finally tackling Tolstoy’s War and Peace (certainly not the definition of fun summer reading). This too is sabotaged by the arrival of Anita Ekberg clone Marika (Valerie Varda). All bubbly and booby (in a tight swimsuit), Marika is a gold-digger (albeit a lovable one), whose prime targets are older attractive men and money (although not necessarily in that order). Upon learning Hobbs is a banker, she pounces on him with the subtlety of an Alien face-hugger. “Any good?,” she asks, indicating the famed Russian novel. “The New Yorker didn’t care for it,” replies Stewart/Hobbs drolly. Stewart’s jealousy later boils when he spies O’Hara talking to yacht club bon vivant Reginald Gardiner. When insisting on knowing what they were conversing about, O’Hara magnificently retorts that they were discussing The Brothers Karamazov – a spectacular right back at ya kick in the ass.
Sexuality in general plays a big part in MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION. To get embarrassed jaw-wired Peters out of her funk, Stewart basically pimps the 14-year-old to the male locals at a teen dance. Actually reverse pimping, paying off the jocks at five bucks a pop. Fortunately (or not) the one who clicks with her is The Fabulous Fabian (as he was known then) in the fourth of his six Fox appearances. The pair becomes a seasonal item, spending their days and nights at Pizza Heaven, where they even get to sing a duet – the bubblegum ballad “Cream Puff,” part of the sprightly soundtrack provided by Henry Mancini. Yet, this innocuous ditty (lyrics by Johnny Mercer), too, has lurid connotations when one applies the slang terminology to the title, as well as the references to tasty jellyrolls and other edibles. FYI, Stewart’s later moves on O’Hara are amorously underlined when he slips her a fin.
The carnal shenanigans reach their peak in a climatic encounter between Varda and Saxon “You didn’t call last night,” brazenly purrs the siren into the nervous professor’s ears in full view of his relatives. It makes one wonder as to the ultimate longevity of Roger Hobbs’ kids’ marriages.
Stewart’s character is sort of Gran Torino’s “Get off my lawn!” Eastwood in middle age; this becomes prominently evident in barbs that border on cruelty. His referring to Saxon as Professor Egghead is the mildest version. A more severe outburst comes when he sneers “You little creep” to his admittedly psychopathic toddler grandson. The big guns come at the teen dance; observing a possible suitor for Peters, Stewart nudges O’Hara to take a gander at the boy’s head and face which he unkindly audibly spouts “…looks like the inside of a small cantaloupe.” Yeah, okay, I laughed.
Yet, the most disturbing aspect of MR. HOBBS is when Burns’ TV conks out and Stewart is cornered into taking his son out on the waves in a craft aptly named a Spatterbox. Soon a fog moves in and the pair finds themselves hopelessly drifting out to sea. Stewart’s morose voiceovers made me squirm uncomfortably back in ’62 – the one part of the movie I found scarily unpleasant.
Things do perk up when Trundy’s husband asks her parents to entertain a potential vacationing employer and his wife – the wonderful who’d-a-thunk-it teaming of John McGiver and Marie Wilson. They pretty much steal the show as the eccentric Turners, a strait-laced, humorless couple (who, suitcase-carrying Hobbs later discovers, fill their luggage with concrete). McGiver’s one passion is bird-watching, and a sidebar trek where the two embark on a dawn patrol search for a Yellow-legged Claphanger is one of the movie’s highlights. The piece de resistance, however, comes later when Stewart is locked in the bathroom with a naked (and swacked) Wilson. The Turners are closet alcoholics and kinky sex aficionados. “You know what he likes sometimes…” teases a giggly Wilson to a mortified Stewart, as he screams for O’Hara to rescue him. It’s the funniest sequence in the pic (I can only imagine that the mother in back of me had by this time committed suicide). Wilson’s subsequent mash note to Stewart caps the segment, and all ends well enough that the family pre-books the dwelling for the next summer.
MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION was a huge hit in 1962 – enough so that Stewart and director Henry Koster (a trusted coworker since Harvey) repeated the formula (with diminishing results) in two follow-up comedies, Take Her, She’s Mine (1963) and Dear Brigitte (1965).
The chemistry between Stewart and O’Hara is terrific and I always figured that making this movie must have been as much fun to shoot as it is to watch (and, despite the ominous narrative elements superbly and cleverly scripted by Nunnally Johnson, it truly is, on the surface, a very funny movie). Not so. In her 2004 biography, ‘Tis Herself, O’Hara exposed a rather startling revelation.
“…I learned a few things about working with Jimmy Stewart on MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION. I discovered that in a Jimmy Stewart picture, every scene revolves around Jimmy Stewart. I was never allowed to really play out a single scene in the picture. He was a remarkable actor, but not a generous one.”
O’Hara worked with Stewart again four years later in the Andy McLaglen western The Rare Breed. Things had not changed in the least, she sadly reported.
Twilight Time’s Blu-Ray of MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION is what we in the trade call a humdinger (but in a clean way). William C. Mellor’s remastered 1080p 2.35:1 images look sensational. The frequently unstable DeLuxe Color that I recall from Fox pics from that period (flesh tones specifically looking pink) is…well, stable and presented with razor-sharp clarity. In short, the movie looks better here than it did in its original release. The audio is in 1.0 mono – although I believe that the first-run prints had a magnetic stereo track. No matter – the audio is fine, and the earlier indicated Mancini score is accessible as an IST (Isolated Score Track).
I’m sure there are thousands of Boomers like me who worship this movie – eternally and wistfully associating it with that Death of Marilyn summer of 1962. While you may recall it as a thoroughly refreshing breezy cinematic beverage, today one might surprisingly find that it carries a slight kick – as if somebody spiked that Coke at Pizza Heaven
MR. HOBBS TAKES A VACATION. Color. Letterboxed [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; Mono [1.0 DTS HD-MA]. UPC # 851789003849; CAT # 903RJO41HTV. Limited Edition of 3000. SRP. $29.95.
Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment. [www.screenarchives.com].