Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Looking At Things Realistically
It’s the age-old question: in DON’T MAKE WAVES, do you prefer Claudia Cardinale or Sharon Tate? I freely admit that at one point in time I may have said Sharon Tate. But looking at it more recently, my mind seems to have been changed. Yes, Claudia Cardinale’s character is crazy and scatterbrained, not to mention at times being unable to stop screaming at Tony Curtis for so much as five seconds, but she’s certainly passionate. Not to mention that along with that passion you get the feeling that she may cook you a big spaghetti dinner with lots of red wine followed by amazing conversation, maybe still another argument where she loses her temper over some minor issue and then you’ll go to bed where more of that passion will continue to display itself. Plus she was in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST—that should solve the matter right there. We should all be so lucky to meet such a woman. Sharon Tate is gorgeous, yes—in the context of some goofy 60s beach comedy she displays an energy which seems practically otherworldly—but it’s going to be hard to keep up much of a dialogue with a girl who sits in bed for long stretches staring at a Spanish-language program on TV, even though she doesn’t speak Spanish. She’s mind-bogglingly beautiful but there has to be something else there. Maybe, as in the film, it’s simply up to some bodybuilder to find out what that is. Either way, it’s a nice choice to pretend to have.
The 1967 southern California lifestyle satire DON’T MAKE WAVES isn’t quite a hidden classic although the Maltin book does refer to it as “the one gem out of nine million bad Tony Curtis comedy vehicles.” I haven’t seen every one of those nine million movies just yet, but DON’T MAKE WAVES does have a certain unique feel to it which sets it apart from other such films of the era, no doubt provided by director Alexander Mackendrick, the man who previously directed Curtis in the masterpiece THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. It’s the sort of sixties comedy with enough of a genuinely oddball take on things that makes it enjoyable to return to every now and then but looking at it right now after seeing it several times over the years one element of the movie which strikes me just now might be how quickly its lead character is able to talk his way into a reputable job and a new life for himself out of nothing in the process. It’s enough to make me think that maybe I should take some pointers from such an approach at this point in time. After all, it might not hurt. It’s all kind of scattershot in the end and pretty much a mess, but many sixties comedies are anyway. At least it’s an interesting mess and contains some sharp satire of how the Los Angeles and Malibu lifestyles were perceived at the time, thought of as a place where you can reinvent your entire world as the continuous sound of those waves crash around in your head.
Carlo Cofield (Tony Curtis) has no sooner moved to Los Angeles and arrived at the Pacific Ocean to stare serenely out at the water than through a comical mishap his car and all of his belongings are destroyed by beautiful failed actress Laura Califatti (Claudia Cardinale) who was at the lookout point working on a painting. Insistent on getting her insurance info Carlo goes with her to her oceanfront apartment but that soon proves difficult when he runs afoul of her “patron”, her married boyfriend Rod Prescott (Robert Webber) who owns the car she was driving. Carlo soon uses what he knows about Rod to his advantage, not to inform his wife Diane (Joanna Barnes) but to secure himself a salesman job with the Prescott’s swimming pool company. Things are soon working out for Carlo faster than anyone could have imagined but he still finds himself continually on the beach infatuated with Malibu—not the place, but the girl (Sharon Tate, getting an “introducing” credit), a gorgeous beachgoing skydiver who he can’t keep his eyes off of even with her bodybuilder boyfriend Harry (real-life bodybuilding champion David Draper) nearby.
Pretty silly stuff and in the way it has dated DON’T MAKE WAVES doesn’t necessarily contain a laugh a minute but it’s breezily enjoyable the whole way through, partly due to the cast and partly due to how innocently appealing the world of the Malibu beaches looks today over forty years after it was made. Even in this goofy context it’s as if Mackendrick brought a surprising amount of intensity to this material, allowing it to hold together to a greater extent than any number of other comedies of the time which also had very little to do with reality—it actually feels directed, like there was genuine thought given to how to stage some of this silliness. There’s not much to it all, maybe indicated by how we never learn a single thing about the past of Tony Curtis’s character—going by the animated title sequence he’s come from somewhere back east and that’s all we ever know. He’s just Tony Curtis shacking up with beautiful women—what more do you need? But it has a nice snappy style in every single scene and its portrayal of a southern California lifestyle where everything imaginable falls into the lap of Carlo Cofield seemingly within days of arrival is infectious, particularly when backed up by a Vic Mizzy score. The Byrds sing the title song over the opening credits as well, making for a pretty enjoyable soundtrack album. The beach scenes are silly, but fun as well, with the bodybuilders and oddball girls who hang out there never portrayed as anything more than mildly eccentric (on his official website, bodybuilder Draper says of the film’s portrayal of the real-life scene, “It was not entirely accurate nor was it a mindless spoof.”). At the least, they’ve got things more together and understand their place in the world more than Tony Curtis’s character seems able to.
If there’s anything wrong with the film on a serious storytelling level (it’s based on the novel “Muscle Beach” by Ira Wallach, adaptation by Maurice Richlin, screenplay by Wallach and George Kirgo), it’s that the tightness of the plot isn’t able to sustain itself past the first forty-five minutes or so. Once Cofield moves into his Cliffside house overlooking the ocean the trail begins to get a little lost, with characters and plot strands seemingly vanishing for long stretches culminating in a climax that seems to begin rather abruptly. As Cofield hatches an elaborate scheme to win Malibu over, a plot strand that is dwelled on a little too long, Cardinale’s Laura gets a little lost gets a little lost in the mix like the plot doesn't know what to do with the character and it’s tough to know what she ever really thinks of the two men interested in her. Certainly a few more minutes of Cardinale screaming in Italian at anyone in this movie wouldn’t have hurt, but at the least we get to see her soaking wet wearing a provocative dress in the rain looking pretty amazing. At times it feels like there’s not much to DON’T MAKE WAVES other than seeing Tony Curtis gaze longingly at Sharon Tate (or a body double) bounce up and down on a trampoline for whole scenes at a time, but maybe that’s all we’re supposed to get out of it anyway. The climax could be seen as stating that the very foundation of Malibu—or maybe even all of sunny California—is so weak that the first crack will show itself at the first sign of a rainstorm, indicated by what happens to one of the swimming pools that are so doted on, sending everything spiraling into destruction (I can’t help but realize that I’ve written some of this during a pretty harsh rainstorm, making me wonder what’s in store for me soon).
The various plot strands get wrapped up in rudimentary fashion and the credits quickly roll as a few of the leads bounce around in the surf, not a single other care in the world since there’s ultimately nothing to worry about. One passage in the title song by The Byrds goes, “And when all the toys that you dreamed of finally come/They all will break and you’re back where you started from.” That’s all that DON’T MAKE WAVES really has to say—no matter what happens, even the loss of all your possessions, once you’re in L.A. (a place where “looking at things realistically” in regards to love doesn’t do anyone any good) ready to live “a full life, a rich life,” as Cardinale’s character puts it, the world is your oyster and anything you want can be right at your fingertips. This of course can include an expensive car, a luxury home looking out at the ocean, and the choice between Claudia Cardinale and Sharon Tate. Like I said, I’m going with Cardinale but you may have your own feelings.
For the record, in his recent autobiography “American Prince: A Memoir” Curtis doesn’t have much to say about DON’T MAKE WAVES beyond how happy he was to be working with Mackendrick again though he does offer, “The plot was utterly ridiculous, but I agreed to appear in the film because I got a percentage of the gross.” He also states that he plays “a professor” in the film so it’s doubtful much of that ridiculousness ever stayed with him. As for Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski later wrote in his own autobiography that she didn’t enjoy herself on the production, a tense set which was certainly exacerbated when a stuntman drowned when parachuting into the Pacific during the shooting of one scene.
Tony Curtis is certainly enjoyable to watch here, attacking the role with all the energy it needs but, in his early forties at the time, he does seem a little long in the tooth. Robert Webber and Joanna Barnes as the Prescotts manage to make their roles less of a stereotype than they might have been in other films although the resolution of their divorce storyline probably doesn’t play so well in this day and age. Mort Sahl and Edgar Bergen as “Madame Lavinia” appear as Special Guest Stars. Jim Backus cameos as himself with wife Henny, doing his Mr. Magoo voice during his brief appearance. As for the two women in question, Claudia Cardinale’s performance may be slightly hurt by how she seems to disappear for a little while during the second half but she’s a true firebrand whenever she’s around and her musings when she tells Tony Curtis about her life makes her extremely endearing. This wasn’t the only movie she made in the U.S., but there weren’t too many others so it seems somehow valuable there’s at least this one film featuring her in this town. As for Sharon Tate, she brings an undeniable magnetism to a pretty thin role almost as if she does has a power to do something special to the camera lens whenever she steps in front of it—it feels like any other film would have gladly made the character the mindless bimbo and left it at that but with Tate’s presence that’s impossible. That we’re reminded of the dark side of California in the sixties every time we see her in this film is unavoidable but her unique allure which is felt to this day lets this movie stand out more than it might have otherwise.
Claudia Cardinale worked for Sergio Leone in the legendary ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST the following year. Sharon Tate was tragically murdered two years later. Tony Curtis soon starred in Richard Fleischer’s THE BOSTON STRANGLER but his status as an A-list star wouldn’t last for much longer. Alexander Mackendrick never made another movie, instead going on to teach film at CalArts. The carefree world presented in DON’T MAKES WAVES certainly didn’t last much longer either making what we see here a fascinating record to have as presented by MGM. The film is unfortunately unavailable on DVD, although TCM does run it every now and then. A product of its time and kind of a relic now, DON’T MAKE WAVES remains endearing for the enjoyable look at the scene it portrays and the presence of the two female leads seen at their most attractive definitely helps. Sharon is truly stunning but, like I said, I go with Claudia. Crazy as she is, she’s got a lifeforce that’s easy to fall for and life with her would certainly be unpredictable. Just as the California of DON’T MAKE WAVES still is.