1967 in Film: “Fitzwilly”

Fitzwilly (1967) is a delightful comedy, slightly old-school for 1967.  It’s a heartwarming tale of loyalty, friendship, love, laughs…and a touch of grand larceny.

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Fitzwilliam (Dick Van Dyke) is a butler – one of a long line of butlers.  His father was butler to the Woodworth family, and his father before him.  Fitzwilliam serves the now-elderly Miss Vicki Woodworth.  It’s a noble calling, if a little old-fashioned in this modern age.  “And,” as Fitzwilliam points out, “terribly, terribly expensive.”

Miss Vicki maintains the enormous family home and creme-de-la-creme lifestyle to which she was born, and writes $20,000 checks to charities on the regular.  Her mansion includes an impressive retinue of servants, who spend less time polishing the furniture than polishing a few skills that are, shall we say, less than 100% legal.

Fitzwilliam & Co. are hiding the awful truth: when her father died, she was left without a cent.  Everything since has been provided by low cunning.  Household expenses are funded by a shocking variety of illegal schemes.  Servants pluck Miss Vicki’s charitable checks from visitors’ pockets while helping with their coats, or poach them from the outgoing mail.  Fitzwilliam is the brainpower behind this high-class hub of crime, and he’s refined the discreet procural of cash to an art and a science.

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The grand dame in question, Miss Vicki, is a strong-minded, strong-willed little old lady, wonderfully portrayed by Edith Evans.  She has the total disregard for propriety that exists only in the best and wealthiest old families.  She calls Fitzwilliam “Fitzwilly,” scolds policemen who pull her over, says “Poppycock!” to anything she deems silly, and has a warm heart beneath a crackling aristocratic exterior.  She’s the leader of the Platypi (“as in ‘many platypuses’?”) – a sort of not-a-Cub Scouts group with principles based on Miss Vicki’s unique life philosophies.  (Among other things, she believes it’s “the height of impertinence” to help little old ladies across the street.)  Miss Vicki’s other pet project is a dictionary for people who can’t spell, which actually sounds brilliant in a pre-Google era.

It’s the dictionary project that knocks down the first domino in Fitzwilly’s perfectly run household.  Miss Vicki, forgetting to inform Fitzwilly, engages the services of a secretary to assist with the dictionary.

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Juliet Nowell (Barbara Feldon, AKA “Agent 99” of Get Smart) shows up.  A surprised Fitzwilly makes a major error in judgment, tries to brush her off, and fires up every suspicious neuron in Juliet’s brain…for all the wrong reasons.  Assuming she won’t get the job, she blasts the butler with a scathing rebuke: “Whatever you’re up to with that wonderful old lady, you ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

Fitzwilly makes his second error; in a fit of pique, he offers her the job at double the salary, because “she was so sure I wouldn’t.”

With an outsider in the house and a complicated plan worth $75,000 in progress, the gang frets over the potential for disaster.  Piece of cake, Fitzwilly says.  She’ll see that there’s nothing going on, they’ll make up an excuse for Miss Vicki to take a vacation, and she’ll be out within the week.

Fitzwilly is mistaken.

After Juliet unwittingly thwarts one too many schemes by her intrusions (including a disastrous incident involving one of Miss Vicki’s checks), Fitzwilly resolves to date her and make a pass, figuring that she’ll be so insulted she’ll quit.

This does not go as planned.  Romance blossoms!  And Fitzwilly is now juggling so many different schemes that he’s bound to drop one sometime.

One by one, the dominoes keep falling, until they decide it’s time to call it quits.  There’s just one big Last Heist to be finished before going straight…

All I will say about that is: If you’ve never seen a boldfaced robbery of Gimbel’s Department Store on Christmas Eve involving upturned umbrellas, Christmas carols, free TVs with any purchase (“no matter how small!”), and judicious use of the United States Postal Service, you haven’t lived.

There’s plenty to enjoy here for the crime comedy (and romantic comedy) fan.

Fitzwilly & Co.’s schemes are laid out in deliciously precise detail, from the Samson-and-Delilah bar trick (always good for quick cash in a pinch) to Serenity Through the Word’s Bibles for the bereaved (a long-term investment, but equally rewarding).  Should you be interested in funding your own cash-poor, prestige-rich household, I’m sure there’s an idea you can adapt.

A very 1960s highlight of the film is TV actor spotting: “Hey! Isn’t he the guy who…”  Starting with Dick Van Dyke and Barbara Feldon (of The Dick Van Dyke Show and Get Smart, respectively), the faces that pop up are a who’s who of characters on TV.  You could watch the same actors at the theater on the weekend, and watch them at home on weekdays.

Demonstrating the Samson and Delilah bar trick.

Demonstrating the Samson and Delilah bar trick.

The strong cast of memorable character actors carries the film: John McGiver, Noam Pitlik, Harry Townes, Sam Waterston, and Cecil Kellaway – among many others.  Maybe you don’t remember their names.  But I bet you remember their faces!  And voices – John Fiedler (AKA the voice of Piglet in Winnie-the-Pooh) makes an appearance as a naive piano store manager.  Byron Casey (Stephen Strimpell) is hilarious as an interior decorator (in well over his head) who’s an integral part of that $75,000 scheme, and Noam Pitlik is memorable as a footman-turned-henchman.

Dick Van Dyke as Fitzwilly, of course, is the highlight.  He pulls out his best fake English accent (and a fake French accent).  He looks like he’s having a blast as this modern Moriarty for a good cause.  It’s living on the edge, without a shred of guilt.  So much so, in fact, that Miss Vicki’s assistant Grimsby (Anne Seymour) gets concerned, telling him that he keeps aiming higher, and he’s only doing it now because he enjoys it.  Fitzwilly’s response: “But it’s just that I’m so good at it!”

John McGiver as Albert deserves special mention.  He’s the wildcard in the gang: he has a guilty conscience.  The retired priest turned servant lies and steals for Miss Vicki’s sake, but his scruples prevent him from participating wholeheartedly.  Fitzwilly keeps him in hand, but he’s the weak point; with the right lever, the whole shebang could crack wide open.  His solemn, deadpan line delivery is classic.  Watch for him “explaining” to Juliet why he was picking someone’s pocket.

Fitzwilly was one of 1967’s family-friendly outings; it pushed no envelopes, though certain aspects would have been nixed under the Production Code.  Luckily, it’s not dated: the combination of a Wodehousian setting, juxtaposed with the lively modernity of Dick Van Dyke and Barbara Feldon, plus a generous helping of the very 1960s crime/heist comedy genre, keeps it fresh and entertaining for the modern viewer.  It also features a score by an up-and-coming composer credited here as “Johnny Williams.”

And just because you rarely, if ever, get to say this when reviewing a classic movie: if you like Dick Van Dyke as a thief in Fitzwilly, you can watch him play one again in Night at the Museum 3 this December.  Yes, this December.  89 years old and still scheming!


This post is part of the 1967 in Film Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and The Rosebud CinemaClick here for all the entries on this fascinating year in the movies.

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The Counterfeit Traitor (1962)

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This review is my second contribution to the Snoopathon: A Blogathon of Classic Spies, hosted by Movies, Silently from June 1-3. See the complete list of films and participants here.

The Counterfeit Traitor, as you may have guessed, is one of my favorite 1960s spy movies.

Most classic spy films focus on a single, critical piece of information – or a one-time, action-packed assignment. There are exceptions: Ingrid Bergman in Notorious, or George Smiley hunting the mole in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But really, most movie spies are after MacGuffins. TV spies’ work is, by nature, episodic; movie spies generally have a mission to get in, get the information, and get out – as fast as possible. Occasionally, we catch up to embedded spies just as they’re escaping (or trying to). It’s less common to find a spy on a long-term, ongoing espionage assignment.

The Counterfeit Traitor‘s premise is loosely based on the story of Eric Erickson, a real WWII spy.

William Holden’s voice-over lays out the facts. The year: 1942. Eric Erickson is a Swedish oil executive (American by birth, now a Swedish citizen). He’s just been placed on a U.S. blacklist and disowned by his brother for – according to Erickson – no reason at all. A “Nazi collaborator,” the papers say. All he’s doing is trading oil with Germany! Sweden is neutral; he’s a businessman. Germany needs barrels of oil; Erickson likes barrels of money. Simple.

Simple, that is, until he meets a British intelligence agent (Collins, played by Hugh Griffith). Collins explains that he can arrange to remove Erickson from the blacklist after the war (a necessity if Erickson wants to keep his business a going concern), provided he serves as a spy. Erickson is ideally situated to discover critical information about Germany’s oil production, and pass it on to Allied Bomber Command. With his hand forced, Erickson agrees. In short order, he’ll also be compelled to turn visibly, actively pro-Nazi – publicly insulting his Jewish best friend, and even losing his wife in the process. He can’t tell anyone. And all for a cause he couldn’t care less about.

As much as it’s an exciting spy story (with a harrowing escape), The Counterfeit Traitor is also about the awakening of a collaborator’s conscience, and a tragic love story. It raises questions about moral responsibility, and doesn’t necessarily answer them. It’s a thrilling, gripping, bittersweet roller coaster of a tale.


 

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There’s too much here to summarize properly, and honestly, I don’t want to give away too many spoilers.  (Although I do share a few important ones, so be warned.) This is one you’ll want to watch. Instead, let me share some of the reasons and scenes that make it one of my favorites. There are lots of things to enjoy in this movie.

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Favorite Picks from Debbie Reynolds’ Costume Auction

In my fantasy world, I’m a wealthy costume collector who could start a Classic Hollywood Costume Museum.  Unfortunately, in real life I’m nothing of the kind, but luckily I can flip through a (digital) catalog and ooh and ahh over the historic costumes within.  Kind of like going through LEGO catalogs as a kid and picking out all the sets you were going to “buy.”

Here are some of my favorites from Debbie Reynolds’ finale auction, which I blogged about last week.

Dress worn by Katherine DeMille in "Romeo & Juliet" (1936). Designed by Adrian & Oliver Messel.

Dress worn by Katherine DeMille in “Romeo & Juliet” (1936). Designed by Adrian & Oliver Messel.

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A Movie and a Book: “Gambit” (1966)

A Movie and a Book: “Gambit” (1966)
gambit (gám-bit) : a series of opening moves (esp. in chess); a strategy, planned before the actual game.

Gambit (1966) : crime caper starring Michael Caine, Shirley MacLaine, Herbert Lom, and John Abbott.

Gambit (1966) : book by Kendall Lane; literary form of the story above.

Tonight’s movie was discovered, of all places, via a stack of vintage paperbacks in a used bookstore.  One of my hobbies is book collecting – second only to book reading, but mostly because of space and monetary limitations.  (Luckily for those of us who read far more than we could ever buy or keep, there are libraries.)  For the most part, I prefer to buy only books from tried-and-true authors, but I’ll bend this rule for gorgeous covers, intriguing blurbs, or anything old that looks like it might be hard to find elsewhere.  Or, as in this case, movie tie-in covers.gambit-pbcoverThis was supposed to be the first in what may be a recurring series, in which I read a book, watch the movie it was based on (or the other way ’round), and review both.  As it turns out, Gambit the movie is practically identical to Gambit the book.  There are a few very minor changes, and they really are minor.  Luckily, this totally works for this book/movie combination, so I’ll be reviewing the movie and adding a new notes on the book at the end.  They’re both solidly entertaining, and you needn’t worry about loving one and hating the other.

Gambit shares the 1960s romantic comedy-slash-heist movie genre with How to Steal a Million, released the same year (1966).  Frankly, How to Steal a Million is the superior film.  With Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, how could it not be?  Still, Gambit shouldn’t be dinged simply for not being Million: it was nominated for three Academy Awards, and it’s got a premise and twist all its own.  It’s also a little heavier on the suspense than the romance.

Bottom line:  If watching How to Steal a Million left you yearning for more romantic comedy heist movies, Gambit should be on your must-watch list.

This may be a fun movie to go into without spoilers, so if you’d like to do so, skip this review and head straight for your preferred rental service or DVD seller.  (It’s nearly impossible to talk about this movie without revealing a few twists.)  Still, I was spoiled on a major plot point from the beginning, read the book, then watched the movie, and enjoyed both just the same – if not more.  Proceed at your own risk. :)

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