Sunday, May 22, 2016

Way … Way Out (Coldwater, Way Out Company, 20th Century-Fox, 1966)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Way … Way Out was made in 1966, six years after Visit to a Small Planet and a virtual eternity in terms of Hollywood’s morals in general and its attitude towards sex in particular. This time Lewis produced the film himself (though he did not insist on directing it as well) through a collapsible company called “Way Out Films” in association with 20th Century-Fox, and he shot it in CinemaScope (the original CinemaScope logo, complete with Alfred Newman’s fanfare, is visible at the start of the film). The director is Gordon Douglas (who’d helmed the one teaming of Frank Sinatra and Doris Day in Young at Heart in 1954) and the writers were William Bowers and László Vadnay, and what they came up with was basically a sex farce set on the moon. The film is set at what the opening narrator, Col. John “Shorty” Powers (who was probably a real person since he’s credited by name as himself), calls “near the turn of the century — not the last century, the next century.” This led me to assume it took place in 1999, though says 1989. The gimmick is that the U.S. and the Soviet Union (remember the Soviet Union?) have adjoining stations on the moon from which they look down at earth’s cloud formations and try to forecast the weather — only, while the Soviets have sent up a man and a woman for their space station, the U.S. sent up two guys, Hoffman (Dennis Weaver) and Schmidlapp (Howard Morris), who have been at each other’s throats for virtually the entire year they’ve been up there together.

Hoffman has more or less retained the ability to speak but Schmidlapp has become virtually catatonic in his (hetero)sexual frustration; all he does all day is draw dirty pictures of women, get drunk and beat the shit out of Hoffman, in one scene actually tying him up as well. Schmidlapp has also got the entire U.S. government to the brink of crisis with the Soviets because he put the make on the woman in the Soviet weather crew, Anna Soblova (Anita Ekberg, almost unrecognizable in a black wig); the Soviets even take this to the United Nations and accuse Schmidlapp of what would now be called sexual harassment, while the U.S. officials defend him by saying Anna probably initiated the sexual invitation herself (which tallies with how we see her behave when she’s finally introduced as a character). So the person in charge of U.S. Lunar Control for NASA, Harold Quonset (Robert Morley, an odd choice not only because he was British but because, given that his most famous previous roles were Louis XVI and Oscar Wilde, he hardly seems the “type” to play a NASA bureaucrat — yet he’s easily the most delightful actor in the film), hits on the idea of recruiting a male weather person and a female astronomer, getting them to fall in love and get married, and sending them up to the moon weather station as a team. Only the pair he’s originally picked, Ted (the young James Brolin) and Peggy (the young Linda Harrison), break up during their three-week honeymoon and end up loathing each other. So the desperate Quonset recruits Pete Mattemore (Jerry Lewis), reluctant astronaut who’s been in the space program 11 years but has found excuse after excuse to avoid actually going up — we first see him coming out of the giant centrifuge in which NASA whirled around would-be astronauts to give them a taste of the ultra-high gravity (up to 12 or even 15 times normal) and the crushing pain they would feel as their rocket blasted them up to escape velocity — and give him a choice of three qualified women scientists to romance and marry in the next three days, since the launch has to be scheduled while the moon is at its closest to the earth.

One of them is already married, and even in a movie like this that was pushing at the envelope of what was left of the Production Code the filmmakers weren’t about to go there. One of them, Esther Davenport (Bobo Lewis), is horse-faced and quite short, and needless to say there are a lot of sexist jokes about her less-than-glamorous figure (including one in which Pete asks Quonset, “Would you marry a girl who looked like that?,” and Quonset replies sadly, “I did”). The third one is blonde bombshell Eileen Forbes (Connie Stevens), though I found her less than appealing, partly because she had a grating voice and partly because her whole affect seemed to be an attempt to pump life into the dumb-blonde stereotype Marilyn Monroe had done so well but which by 1966 seemed awfully dated. Pete’s attempt to woo her into marriage and joint space flight goes awry on their first dinner date, when they’re interrupted by Stella Mary (Margaret Teele), Pete’s previous girlfriend, who confronts them and quietly pours an entire champagne bottle over Pete’s head while Pete sits there, stone-faced and unresponsive (a bit of comedic subtlety all too rare in Lewis’s work!). Fortunately Esther, who’s dying to go into space, hits on the Noël Coward Design for Living idea: they’ll get married and present themselves to the world as a couple but they won’t have sex. The two go through a rush wedding as the elevator is taking them up the gantry into their spaceship — the minister keeps wanting to read the entire wedding service and Quonset keeps cutting him short — and the newlyweds are finally launched onto the moon rocket, where in a typical role reversal for a movie of this era Eileen is actually hot to trot and it’s the exhausted Pete who falls asleep on her in bed. They’re awakened by the two Russian crew members, Anna and Igor Valkleinokov (Dick Shawn, who adds a lot to this movie even though his presence couldn’t help but make me wonder if Lewis soaked his backers for 25,000 percent of what it actually cost … ), who want them to come to a party … right then.

Igor gets Pete plastered on vodka (actually a powder to which you add water to reconstitute it as a drink, though where they get the water on the moon is left unexplained), and there’s a nice gag scene in which Pete, asked to make up another batch of the stuff, gets the instructions mixed up and swallows the vodka powder, then drinks a water chaser, and ends up super-drunk and with the funnel he’s supposed to use to get the water into the bottle stuck in his mouth. The movie gets pretty dull after that, as Lewis and his writers quickly run out of variations on the one sex joke — each of the male characters is either pursuing or fighting off each of the female characters — until it lumbers to a climax in which Anna tells Igor that she’s pregnant (this is supposed to represent the difference between American and Soviet morals: the U.S. couple are married but aren’t having sex, while the Soviets aren’t married and are having sex). It turns out this is just a lie she’s told Igor to get him to marry her and commit already, but in the meantime there’s been a lot of back-and-forth discussions between Pete and Eileen on the moon and Quonset, the NASA bureaucracy and ultimately the President and his Cabinet to the effect that we can’t let the Russians beat us again by having the first Earthling baby born in space, so Pete and Eileen are given the green light to give up their enforced celibacy and bear a U.S. child on the moon. There’s a nice parallel gag that ties in with the film’s opening — a countdown sequence that leads into the movie’s theme song, “Way … Way Out,” written by Lalo Schifrin (music) and Hal Winn (lyrics) and performed by Jerry Lewis’s son Gary with his band, The Playboys; at the end the song is repeated and the countdown leads (or is supposed to lead, since director Douglas averts his cameras so we don’t see the actual coupling) to the first time Pete and Eileen finally get to have sex. (Woody Allen pulled a similar framing gag in his film Bananas four years later, in which the opening is Howard Cosell narrating a revolution in a South American country and the closing is Cosell doing a play-by-play of Allen and his new wife, Louise Lasser, on their wedding night.)

I’ll say one thing for Way … Way Out: by 1966 Jerry Lewis had abandoned his infantile persona and that grating voice he used to go with it, and he’s playing a more suave version of the character — Lewis’s critical supporters date the change from his film The Nutty Professor, made three years earlier and a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde knockoff in which Lewis changes from a nerdy professor to a lounge lizard some critics have argued he copied from his ex-partner Dean Martin — but whatever the motivation, at least he’s considerably less annoying than he was in his earlier movies as the scratchy-voiced simpleton. Unfortunately he’s also considerably less amusing; perhaps now that he was old enough to be the father of a teenage rock star he realized he not only couldn’t but shouldn’t jump around and do big pratfalls like he had in his earlier films, but his attempts to “sophisticate” his character only made him dull. Way … Way Out is one of those infuriating films that’s neither really good nor really bad — not funny enough to be entertaining in the way Lewis and his crew clearly intended and not awful enough to be funny as camp — it just unreels through its 97-minute running time (12 minutes longer than Visit to a Small Planet) and numbs the audience (this member of it, anyway) during all those long stretches where nothing particularly interesting is happening. One point Charles made about it after it was over was that it was an indication of the 14 years that separated Red Planet Mars (which we’d seen in the same venue the night before) from Way … Way Out was that in 1952 the only way to do the Cold War on screen in a U.S. film was to make it an ultra-serious propagandist piece in which We Are the Good Guys and They Are the Bad Guys. By 1966 it was possible to spoof the Cold War — to make fun in particular of both the U.S. and the Soviet Union wanting to be or do the first this-or-that — though that shouldn’t have been such a big surprise since Way … Way Out was made two years after Dr. Strangelove, a far better movie and a far bitterer satire on the Cold War and its pretensions, and one that holds up vividly even though both the Cold War and the Soviet Union itself are part of history now!